NGOs working to save migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean are colluding with people smugglers, an Italian prosecutor has told La Stampa.
Speaking with the Italian daily, Sicily-based Carmelo Zuccaro said the charities are in direct contact with trafficking gangs in Libya by phone. Some are even using lamps while at sea to attract smugglers’ vessels to safety and advising traffickers to turn off their transponders so as their activities cannot be tracked by authorities, he claimed.
Zuccaro gave no details of evidence he has to back his allegations, and said he was unsure as to whether the information could be used during a trial.
“For the suspect [NGOs], we must understand what they do; for the good ones, instead one must ask if it’s right and normal that European governments leave the task of deciding how and where to intervene in the Mediterranean to them,” Zuccaro said.
La Stampa said Italian prosecutors are investigating whether newly-formed charities operating rescue boats just outside Libyan waters are being funded by people smuggling gangs keen to ensure migrants who have paid thousands of euros to reach Europe make it Italy.
Zuccaro’s comments come as NGOs operating rescue boats in the Mediterranean are facing increasing scrutiny of their work, which Frontex has described as tantamount to a “taxi” service to Europe.
In an interview with German daily Die Welt in February, Frontex boss Fabrice Leggeri said: “[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.
“This leads traffickers to force even more migrants on to unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years.”
It has been claimed that trafficking gangs often launch unseaworthy vessels overloaded with migrants in the knowledge that they will most likely be picked up by NGO rescue boats before they either run out of fuel or capsize.
In December last year, the Financial Times published details of a confidential Frontex report that highlighted concerns over NGOs’ links to smuggling gangs. The report claimed the EU’s border agency was aware of evidence that suggested charities were offering traffickers “clear indications before departure on the precise direction to be followed in order to reach the NGOs’ boats”.
Charities working in the region have consistently denied allegations that they work with people smugglers, empathising that their sole aim is to save lives. “More would die if we weren’t there,” Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) cofounder Chris Catrambone was quoted as saying by the UK’s Daily Telegraph.
Separately, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said over 1,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year, a benchmark that was not reached until the end of May in 2016.