First came the concerns raised by Frontex in a confidential report published by the Financial Times, about the interactions between people smugglers and charities engaged in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Then, the accusations of the chief prosecutor for the Sicilian city of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, who opened a fact-finding probe last February, saying that “non-governmental organisations operating rescue boats may be funded by traffickers”. This week was the time of Luigi Di Maio’s declaration. The Italian MP, Deputy Lower House Speaker and one of the most influential leaders of the 5-Star Movement defined the NGOs saving lives at sea as “taxis for migrants”. “Non-governmental organisations have been accused of a fact that is extremely serious, both by Frontex reports and by the judiciary, of being in cahoots with human traffickers and, in some cases, of having transported criminals”, he said.
NGOs operating in the Mediterranean have been under attack for months now and, according to many civil society representatives, although there are no actual proofs to support the allegations yet, the accusations are starting to build an increasing climate of mistrust towards the sector.
Over the past two years, a growing number of organisations have started search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, including giants of the non-profit sectors, like Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, and smaller voluntary organisations, whose operations have been carried out exclusively by volunteers. Like bigger organisations, smaller NGOs finance their missions through fundraising campaigns and private donations. Some fake news websites have mentioned that these organisations are paid for each migrant they manage to rescue and transport to the mainland in Italy, but this is false.
2016 has been the worst year to date for migrants’ deaths in the Mediterranean, with over 5,000 people who died at sea and 2017 could be even worse. 962 migrants have lost their lives since January. This is the reason why organisations believe that their presence in the Mediterranean is fundamental. In 2016 about 14 rescue boats in the Central Mediterranean were operated by NGOs and according to Frontex, in the last six months of 2016, 40% of the rescue operations at sea off Libya were carried out by non-governmental organisations. Among the “concerns” raised by Frontex, there is also the so-called “pull factor”, which indicates that the NGOs who rescue people in the sea off Libya are encouraging migrants to leave and traffickers to arrange an increasing number of dangerous crossings. “Blaming NGOs for the growing number of deaths in the Mediterranea seems paradoxical.” Told Vita.it, Marco Bertotto, head of Advocacy and Public Awareness at Doctors Without Borders. “We are at sea because there are people who are forced to make the crossing without a legal system that can guarantee their safety. We are filling an institutional void and we respond to a humanitarian duty”.
Marco Bertotto is also very clear about the suspects raised by Zuccaro of NGOs entering Libyan territorial waters. “Our very first rule is to follow the directions of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (in Rome).” Says Bertotto. “We have never entered the Libyan territorial waters, however it is true that we operate where rubber boats are more at risk of sinking. The tract between 20 and 25 miles from the Libyan coast is one of the most critical areas”. Also the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas) repels the accusations. “Moas is entirely financed by donations of private citizens from all over the world. All our operations follow the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and are carried out in collaboration with the other actors of the Search and Rescue Area,” stated in an e-mail, Giulio Tiberio Marostica, communications officer of the organisation which was founded by philanthropists Regina e Christopher Catrambone and that is now active in the Strait of Sicily with 2 boats. “What we know is that until there are people so desperate to cross the sea on those death boats, we will do our best to be there to save them, no matter what the reasons behind their decisions to risk their lives are.”
In a comment to the ANSA news agency, on Thursday, Zuccaro said he was identifying on a phenomenon, not individual organisations, in an attempt to prevent greater abuses. He said prosecutors would need investigative help to seek charges, although for now no proof to support the allegations has been presented. "It is my duty to denounce that there are people who are enriching themselves from immigration, with the resources destined for assistance that attract Mafiosi appetites," Zuccaro told ANSA. He also added that non-governmental organisations like Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders were acting honorably, adding that "money given to them is well-spent." The problem is that making distinctions is not always easy and these accusations are threatening the reputation of the vital work NGOs are doing in the Mediterranean. Save the Children said that Zuccaro's allegations that NGOs were in direct contact with smugglers were helping "to creating a climate of mistrust that is at the expense of children, women and men in flight." In the meantime, while they are still waiting to see a proof of the allegations. NGOs are carrying on with their missions in the Mediterranean. Amidst the accusations and the controversies, more than 8,300 migrants were rescued over the Easter weekend alone.
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