In 2017, nearly 50 percent of migrant sea rescues were carried out by voluntary groups like Save the Children or Doctors without Borders. However, the trend is impeding the fight against criminal organizations, a Catania prosecutor warns.
Private organizations are increasingly involved in rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. However, according to Carmelo Zuccaro, a Catania prosecutor, this raises questions about the funding of the NGOs, their relationship with traffickers as well as the role of private parties in managing migration flows. Investigations are now underway.
From September 2016, there has been a proliferation of NGOs accompanying migrants to Italy, Zuccaro told the Italian parliament's Schengen committee that monitors the application of the Schengen agreement on the free movement of people in the EU.
In the second half of 2016, approximately 30 percent of sea rescues involving migrants landing in the Catania district were conducted by NGOs. "In 2017, we registered at least 50 percent of rescues carried out by these NGOs," Zuccaro said. Thirteen ships had been registered "at the height of activities," he added.
Shipwrecks and deaths continue
Among European countries, Germany has the largest NGO presence, with five organizations operating six ships. Other European NGOs are also present, including Doctors Without Borders, running two vessels and Save the Children, operating one ship. "The presence of the NGOs has not, however, reduced the number of shipwrecks and deaths at sea," Zuccaro said, adding that approximately 5,000 people died while crossing the Mediterranean in 2016.
The presence of the NGOs at sea has not facilitated investigations into criminal organizations that manage the flows. "Before, we were at least able to intercept and arrest the facilitators," Zucarro said, referring to people who accompany the migrant boats on board other vessels to ensure that they go in the right direction. With the NGOs at sea, facilitators were no longer present, Zuccero attests: "We only manage to capture the smugglers, but we have come to recognize that they are themselves migrants, chosen casually from among the group." Zuccero sees the NGO system as "checking the fight against criminal organisations."
The financial aspect also raises concerns: "What we are trying to understand is the reason for the proliferation of these NGOs and how they manage to face such high costs without returning a profit," the prosecutor said. The monthly and daily costs sustained by the NGOs are 11,000 euros a day for the Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee and 40,000 euros a month for the Iuventa, he continued. The NGO Moas, with the Phoenix and Topaz Responder and the use of reconnaissance drones, faces monthly costs of around 400,000 euros, without counting the purchase of the ships. In light of these figures, the Catania prosecutor's office believes it is necessary to question the provenance of the funding and its channels.
The NGOs are oftentimes closer to the rescue areas than commercial vessels. "Their aim is to save lives," the lawyer said. However, "it cannot be ruled out that they are contacted directly" by those who organize the flows "without the mediation of the operation centre," he added.
The worst case could be "that they work in agreement with the organizers" of migrants' trips, Zuccaro continued, explaining that it is an "objective fact" that there is a "desire to create human corridors." However the prosecutor questioned whether private parties could be allowed to substitute for states.
Investigations into the matter will now try to understand whether the conventions concerning docking at the nearest port during an operation have been violated and whether the NGOs work with the Italian authorities. Legal proceedings could follow if an exchange of information cannot be confirmed.
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