Ten maritime search and rescue NGOs are pushing back against media reports that allege that they are facilitating human trafficking. Earlier this week, leaders from the NGOs met with members of the European Parliament to discuss ways to address unfavorable accounts of their activities.
“Recent unsubstantiated media reports of SAR NGO’s misconduct, need to be addressed, not through the media, but through constructive open dialogue. We don’t know of any maritime SAR NGO’s who are operating outside the SAR rules and regulations and we share the security agencies concerns if this is indeed the case," said International Maritime Rescue Federation CEO Bruce Reid in a statement. "We hope that with the assistance of the EU parliament we can start an effective dialogue to resolve these concerns, so that the focus can return to saving people in distress.”
Last month, the head of EU border authority Frontex alleged that the NGOs were facilitating the business of human trafficking by ferrying migrants to Italy. “We must avoid supporting the business of criminal networks and traffickers in Libya through European vessels picking up migrants ever closer to the Libyan coast," said Frontex leader Fabrice Leggeri in an interview with Die Welt. “This leads traffickers to force even more migrants on to unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years.”
Medecines Sans Frontieres has described Frontex's views on NGO activity as "extremely serious and harmful." While security agencies were invited to this week's meeting in Brussels, they did not attend.
In the Sicilian port of Catania, a landing point for many of the rescued migrants, prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has announced that he is running an informal investigation into whether the NGOs are collaborating with human traffickers. "At times, there were 13 boats operated by NGOs working at once [last summer]. Do these NGOs all have the same motivations? And who is financing them?" he said, speaking to Reuters. He suggested that their overhead must be high, given the size and scope of the effort. "That's expensive, and we're just looking into who is financing them and why," he said. While he has spoken of an initial probe into the NGOs' activities, Zuccaro has not initiated a formal investigation.
Lena Waldhoff, a spokeswoman for rescue NGO Jugend Rettet, said that this was an "absurd allegation." "We have a strong feeling that it is a matter of political will to criminalize rescuers and move them away from the operational zones," she said.
Migrant numbers rising
While the contest over the narrative continues, the NGOs' workload is increasing. Wintertime migration numbers are up dramatically compared with previous years; observers say that the pressure comes from the increasingly abusive treatment of migrants in Libya and the prospect of the trans-Mediterranean route's closure later this year. "The traffickers say it will be the Libyans doing the rescue operations in a couple of months and bringing everyone back to Libya," said Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, speaking to Italian outlet The Local. "That's the last thing most of the migrants want so they think they have to hurry up and leave."