NGOs’ migrant rescue role comes under Italian spotlight

By Alessandra Bocchi, Libya Herald

Tunis, 19 February 2017:

Italy is looking more closely at the role of privately-funded rescue operations that have been plucking migrants from the seas off Libya and into the possibility that there may be collusion between smugglers and some of the rescuers.

A Sicilian prosecutor has told the news agency AFP that the cost and sophistication of the rescue operations had attracted attention.

“There is an abnormal proliferation of NGOs [Non-Government Organisations] operating “ said Carmelo Zuccaro, Catania’s prosecutor, “I’m not talking about the big, prestigious organisations, but all the small ones that seem to have sophisticated hardware, such as drones.”

Zuccaro said that in 2013 his office had begun its own monitoring of migrant trafficking. Because of their expensive equipment and its interest in their sources of funding,  it had now started to check NGOs for any links with the smugglers.

It seems clear that the European border security force Frontex has been watching the movement of rescue vessels just as it has been seeking to monitor the trafficking gangs that have been launching migrants from the coast of western Libya.  Such observation will have included the interception of radio traffic.

Last December the UK’s Financial Times reported seeing confidential Frontex documents. One from November said that before the smugglers launched them, migrants had been told in  which direction they should steer in order the reach an NGO rescue craft.  The second Frontex document said it had received the first reported case that criminal networks had smuggled migrants directly onto an NGO vessel. No names nor dates were given.

Frontex has since reported that the nature of rescue operations last summer changed drastically. There had, said Frontex, been a significant increase in NGOs in sea areas once patrolled by EU naval warships and coastguard vessels. It also noted that smugglers or the migrants once afloat used to call the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome to tell them where migrants were supposed to be heading.

The number of these distress calls last summer had dropped from around two-thirds of all known migrant launches to barely one in ten by October. This coincided with a surge in the number of NGO rescues. In October the NGOs had conducted 40 percent of all migrant pick-ups compared with only five percent at the start of the year.

The implication was either that the smugglers or migrants at sea were no longer bothering to make any calls to the Rome rescue coordinators or that they were contacting some of the NGO rescue vessels.

According to the Financial Times, Frontex also reported that migrants rescued by NGOs had been unwilling to be debriefed. Some had said they had been warned not to cooperate with Frontex or Italians officials.

One of the leading rescuers, MSF has condemned any idea of collusion with the smugglers as “extremely serious and harmful” . It protested that the NGOs were “not the cause but a response” to a humanitarian crisis. They had been forced to act because Frontex was failing to prevent migrant deaths at sea.

There are some ten NGOs involved in rescues off the coast of Libya. They include Germany’s  Sea Watch, Sea Eye and Jugend Rettet, as well as the Dutch Lifeboat Project, the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms and Malta’s Moas.

Last September a Libyan coastguard detained a fast launch belonging to Sea-Eye, a charity which claimed to have rescued thousands of migrants. After the vessel’s arrest along with two German crewmen, the charity’s founder Michael Buschheur declined to give Libya Herald any comment.  The crew were later released.


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