The German charity Sea-Watch is pushing back against the EU border agency Frontex's charges that maritime rescue NGOs are facilitating migrant smuggling on the Libya-Italy route.
In leaked documents first reported by the Financial Times, the newly created border agency alleged that maritime rescue NGOs were facilitating the business of human smuggling. Specifically, Frontex contended that migrants had been informed of the location of rescue vessels prior to departure and that lighting on the vessels acted as a beacon for migrant boats.
Sea-Watch rejected these allegations. “Frontex itself creates the business field for trafficking, since the border protection agency is implementing the EU’s policy of closure," said Axel Grafmanns, CEO of Sea-Watch. “A criminalization of those who help where the EU fails seems to become the European strategy in the 2017 super-election-year."
Further, Sea-Watch said that NGOs are filling a widening gap in the EU's own rescue mission, Operation Sophia, and that the EU is not fulfilling its duty to assist. “There is the obligation to do everything in the event of an emergency call to help as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, the better equipped ships of the military were often only observers of the civilian rescue," said Frank Dörner, a member of the Sea-Watch managing board. Frontex's own data appear to confirm Sea-Watch's impression: the agency’s leaked report indicated that NGOs performed 40 percent of rescues in October, up from 5 percent in early 2016.
A spokeswoman for the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières partially agreed with Sea-Watch's position, and told the FT that Frontex should focus its attention on the thousands of migrant deaths on the Libya-Italy route each year rather than on the activities of civilian charities.
Sea-Watch contends that Frontex's stance is motivated by politics rather than humanitarian concerns. Migration has become the EU's most serious political flashpoint: over one million people emigrated to Europe via Mediterranean sea routes last year, putting stress on social services and raising fears that terrorists could be hiding among the refugees. In the latest official Eurobarometer poll, 45 percent of respondents thought migration has become the most important issue facing the EU, and it has become a defining issue in national-level elections – notably the Brexit vote, the Austrian presidential race and the upcoming Dutch general election. At the EU level, the migration crisis led directly to the European Commission’s decision to stand up Frontex earlier this year.
Suing the Libyan Coast Guard
In Tuesday's statement, Sea-Watch also criticized Frontex and Operation Sophia for engaging with the Libyan Coast Guard.
About 80 Libyan servicemembers are training on board an Italian ship as part of Operation Sophia, and Sea-Watch contends that the Coast Guard has engaged in illegal and inhumane behavior towards maritime migrants – including causing their deaths. The NGO is pressing charges against the Coast Guard for an incident in October that resulted in at least four migrant fatalities. The charity alleges that the Coast Guard boarded a migrant vessel, beat its occupants with sticks, prevented the distribution of life jackets and caused all its passengers to go over the side. The organization recovered four bodies and believes that an additional 10-25 more passengers went missing.