Ship captain who saved migrants refuses Paris' highest honor

LONDON and BIARRITZ -- The captain of a ship that saved migrants in the Mediterranean Sea has refused to accept Paris' highest honor, instead accusing the city's mayor of hypocrisy.

In July, Pia Klemp of Germany was awarded the Médaille de la Ville de Paris Grand Vermeil, but she wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 20 that she would not accept it.

She wrote that Mayor Anna Hidalgo and the city of Paris "want to award me a medal for my solidarian [sic] action in the Mediterranean Sea, because our crews 'work to rescue migrants from difficult conditions on a daily basis'.

"At the same time your police is stealing blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers," she continued. "I am sure you won't be surprised that I decline the medaille Grand Vermeil."

The Paris City Council's press office told ABC News, "This is a misunderstanding." The Paris City Council said that it welcomes migrants "in the most humane conditions that are possible for us to offer."

The council added, "Council member Dominique Versini, who is in charge of the solidarity department and the fight against exclusion, is trying to contact Pia Klemp very quickly to propose to meet her and discuss the action of the City on the reception of migrants."

Klemp's post included an image of a 2017 article from French newspaper L'Obs with the headline, "After barriers, the Paris city council installs anti-migrant rocks." In February 2017, L'Obs reported that the city had placed dozens of large rocks on the ground under a bridge where hundreds of people slept while waiting to be seen by a nearby humanitarian center.

At the time, the Paris City Council justified the rocks by citing imminent construction work on those sites, but migrant aid associations alleged it was harassment.

Klemp was captain of the rescue ship Iuventa, associated with Berlin-based nongovernmental organization Jugend Rettet (Youth Rescue), when the ship was seized at Lampedusa on Aug. 2, 2017, by Italian authorities.

Jugend Rettet are currently fighting a legal case to have the ship released. Klemp continued captaining rescue ships with German NGO Sea-Watch until summer 2018, when she and nine others, calling themselves the Iuventa 10, were informed by Italian authorities that they were under individual investigation for "aiding and abetting illegal immigration," a spokesperson for the Iuventa 10 told ABC News.

Between August 2016 and August 2017, the ship ran 16 rescue missions off the cost of Libya and saved at least14,000 lives, according to the Iuventa 10 website.

The 10 could face criminal prosecution in Italy depending on the results of the investigation. It is not clear yet whether the Sicilian prosecutor will choose to prosecute; the Iuventa 10 launched an appeal to drop the investigation in June, according to the spokesperson. Klemp is not a member of Jugend Rettet or of Sea Watch and her statement was made in an individual capacity.

Patrick Klugman, the mayor's deputy in in charge of international relations who made the announcement in July, proposed to show the support of the city of Paris by awarding the medal to Klemp and Carola Rackete, the captain of another rescue ship who was arrested this summer in Italy.

"We must denounce as strongly as possible the legal proceedings brought against Carola Rackete and Pia Klemp in Italy," he said when announcing the award July 12.

Rackete, who is associated with another German non-profit, Sea-Watch, has not commented on whether she would accept the award. She was taken into custody by Italian authorities in June this year after her boat, Sea-Watch 3, docked in the Italian port of Lampedusa without authorization, with 40 migrants on board, according to Deutsche Welle.

Sea-Watch told ABC News the prize was awarded to Rackete personally, not to the organization. "Therefore, she will decide herself, as Pia did, if she accepts it or not," their spokesperson said.

Sea-Watch had greeted the news with enthusiasm when it was announced on July 12.

They tweeted in German, "We are delighted with the City of Paris' decision to honor our captains #CarolaRackete & #PiaKlemp with its highest award, the Grand Vermeil Medal. We hope this recognition will be reflected in French politics when #SeaWatch3 is back in action."

The Iuventus and Sea-Watch are just some of the non-profit rescue ships coming under pressure. Matteo Salvini, Italy's far-right interior minister, has passed harsh laws to prevent boats rescuing people in the Mediterranean from docking in Italy.

"They are petrified they will be taken back to Libya where they have been exposed to horrendous abuses and arbitrary detention. Some are survivors of shipwrecks or bombings. They all deserve safety."

Luca Pigozzi, MSF doctor on board #OceanViking#MSF #BackAtSea pic.twitter.com/OBpXd9qB1E

- MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) August 22, 2019The Médaille de la Ville is Paris' highest civilian honor, according to the newspaper L'Obs. It is awarded for those who have undertaken "something remarkable" that relates to the city of Paris and can be awarded in five categories. Past international awardees have included Patti Smith, Karl Lagerfeld and Rafael Nadal.

"We do not need medals," Klemp wrote on Facebook this week. "We do not need authorities deciding about who is a 'hero' and who is 'illegal'. In fact they are in no position to make this call, because we are all equal. What we need are freedom and rights. It is time we call out hypocrite honorings and fill the void with social justice."
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