An Italian prosecutor this week revealed new accusations against NGOs operating in the Mediterranean, arguing that they are colluding with smugglers.
T housands of people try to cross the Mediterranean Sea every year. Many of those who survive do so after being picked up by search and rescue vessels, but missions operated by nongovernmental organisations have faced mounting criticism over the past few months.
The chief accuser in the most recent case is Italian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, who claims that these groups are colluding with Libyan smugglers, while also questioning their funding.
The accusations come at a critical time as an increasing number of reports have documented slavery and other deplorable conditions for migrants and refugees stuck in Libya. The North African country is currently one of the main hubs for people hoping to make the journey to Europe.
Earlier this week Mr. Zuccaro, stationed in Sicily, told Italian daily La Stampa that he had evidence of phone calls being made to Libyan traffickers from rescue vessels based in the Mediterranean.
This is not the first time that NGOs have been accused of collusion with smugglers: Frontex, the EU’s border agency, in December accused NGOs of just that, the Financial Times reported. The paper has since corrected the article to tone down the severity of the accusations.
In this new claim Mr. Zuccaro maintains that search and rescue organisations are helping people find their boats through advisory calls to Libya. He also reiterated a claim previously made by Frontex that in illuminating their ships rescue teams are encouraging migrant vessels. Critics argue that these accusations are part of a campaign to smear the reputation of NGOs involved in rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
The ‘pull’ factor
“Most rescue incidents these days happen very close to Libyan territorial waters. A couple of years ago this was not the case,” Frontex told The World Weekly in a statement, adding: “What we are seeing now is migrants given only enough fuel to reach international waters, on rubber boats of very low quality.” In this view, NGOs are creating a ‘pull’ factor that is encouraging people to attempt the perilous crossing.
Sea-Watch, a non-profit organisation conducting maritime rescue missions in the Mediterranean, rejects the accusations. In an interview with TWW, Ruben Neugebauer called it “cynical to discredit those organisations that save people at sea”. He directly dismissed Mr. Zuccaro’s criticism of illuminated ships, arguing that lights “are regulations at sea”. Mr. Neugebauer says it was astonishing that Sea-Watch and other organisations like it are being attacked for doing a job that the EU should be doing.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operates a patrol in the Mediterranean and was implicated in previous accusations, says its operation complies with Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. They sail 25 nautical miles from the Libyan coast and “only move closer to Libyan waters when explicitly asked to do so - which happened on just three occasions in 2016,” press officer Gemma Gille told TWW. “We never cross into Libyan waters.” Ms. Gille also rejected the ‘pull’ factor argument, saying that “in the first five months of 2015, when no NGO search and rescue operations took place, 1,800 people drowned.”
355,361 arrived in Europe by sea in 2016, while 5,096 people were dead or missing at sea. Around 43% of those making the journey are women and children.
Mr. Zuccaro’s accusations will further embitter relations between EU authorities and rescue NGOs. The two sides have clashed over the EU’s handling of the migration crisis, particularly regarding what critics have argued is a criminalisation of those seeking refuge in Europe. NGOs have accused the EU of deliberately withdrawing its rescue boats towards European shores, knowing that unseaworthy boats full of migrants will not make it that far.
MSF famously rejected funding, rumoured to be worth $65 million, from the EU after Brussels struck a deal with Turkey to send refugees back from camps in Greece.
Laura Hammond, a migration expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says “motivations and drivers of migration… are not made solely on the basis of whether or not people are likely to survive crossing the Med”. Speaking out in support of rescue missions, Professor Hammond added: “I do not accept that saving lives encourages more people to attempt the crossing. What it does do is reduce the numbers who die.”
The journey to Europe has become a feature of modern life for many people in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Gambia, it is known as ‘the back way’, in Sierra Leone as ‘Temple Run’ - a reference to the popular mobile phone game where the player embarks on a perilous escape from fire and devilish monkeys.
For many observers the main factor sending people to Europe is not the pull of NGO boats but rather the push of climate change, high unemployment and conflict. Stemming the flow of migration, Professor Hammond says, “will require engaging with the causes of movement - which are political, economic, and social - rather than taking away the minimal protections that are offered to people who attempt the crossing.”
It is unlikely that Mr. Zuccaro’s statements will lead to any criminal charges, but the accusations may chip away at the reputation of rescue groups working to save lives in the Mediterranean.