[ANALYSIS] Fact-checking 5 claims criminalising migrant rescue NGOs

Criminalising the Good Samaritan: as the Maltese government accuses migrant rescue charities of abetting smugglers, JAMES DEBONO fact-checks the claims criminalising these NGOs

In an indirect reference to migrant rescue NGOs, this week Malta’s foreign minister Evarist Bartolo described assisting and “urging” human traffickers by rescuing migrants taken out at sea from Libya, as “an inhumane act”.

In far more inflammatory language, longtime Labour Party activist Alfred Grixti, the CEO of Malta’s social welfare agency FSWS, called on government to impound and scuttle boats used in the rescue of migrants.

This triggered an onslaught of unsubstantiated claims of collusion between NGOs and smugglers, echoing a smear campaign by populist politicians which accuses NGOs of colluding with smugglers, acting as a pull-factor, and ultimately even endangering migrants.

But is there any truth behind these allegations?

NGOs usurp the role of the state sowing confusion

Operation Mare Nostrum, which saw Italy taking an active role in rescuing migrants, was launched in response to public outcry over a shipwreck that killed over 300 people near Lampedusa in 2013. But in an attempt to deter migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, the EU and its member states pulled back from Mare Nostrum and subsequently even from the more restricted Operation Sophia, leading to record numbers of deaths.

But it was only after 2015 that NGOs became a major player in sea rescue operations and this only happened after more than 1,200 people perished at sea in the 12 and 18 April 2015 shipwrecks – the largest to have been documented in recent Mediterranean history. These NGOs were forced to deploy their own rescue missions in a desperate attempt to fill the gap of retreating EU navies, to reduce casualties.

But the increase in the death toll was the result of the termination of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation, which had patrolled close to the Libyan coast to rescue migrants in distress. The end of Mare Nostrum left a gap in Search and Rescue (SAR) capabilities that was meant to deter migrants and instead led to a staggering increase in deaths at sea in early 2015.

Their role was recognized by the Socialist Group in the European parliament, which in October 2018 nominated Proactiva Open Arms, SOS Mediterranée, Médecins Sans Frontières International, Sea-Watch, SeaEye, Jugend Rettet, Lifeline, MOAS, Save the Children, PROEMAID and Boat Refugee Foundation for the EU’s top human rights prize, the Sakharov Prize, for defending human rights and saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea. “These NGOs represent the most human face of migration. Where many EU governments failed, NGOs stepped up and have become an essential provider for search and rescue (SAR) missions around the Mediterranean Sea. More than 110,000 lives were saved by them since 2015. Over 40% of all rescue missions, only in 2018, were operated by them,” S&D Vice President Elena Valenciano said.

But the presence of NGOs may have posed another major problem for EU governments: that of hindering their bid to delegate the policing of the EU’s external border to the Libyan coast guard.

The EU has sent more than €328 million to Libya, with an additional €41 million approved in early December, largely channelled through U.N. agencies. A thorough investigation by the Associated Press in 2019 found that in a country without a functioning government, “huge sums of European money have been diverted to intertwined networks of militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who exploit migrants”.

The militias torture, extort and otherwise abuse migrants for ransom in detention centres, often in compounds that receive millions in European money, the AP investigation showed. Many migrants also simply disappear from detention centres, sold to traffickers or to other centres.

The same militias conspire with some members of Libyan coast guard units. The coast guard gets training and equipment from Europe to keep migrants away from its shores. But coast guard members return some migrants to the detention centres under deals with militias, the AP found, and receive bribes to let others pass en route to Europe.

NGO rescue missions act as a pull factor for migrants

The accusation that NGO rescue missions act as a pull factor was levelled against state and EU sanctioned missions Mare Nostrum and Operation Sophia by populist far-right politicians like Matteo Salvini.

But data suggests that the presence of NGOs and other rescue missions has little impact on arrivals. Migration along the western Mediterranean route from Morocco registered a 46% increase between 2015 to 2016, in the absence of any NGO rescue missions. It is the worsening economic and political crises that affect several regions across the African continent, including the turmoil raging in Libya, which have played a major role in driving the numbers of migrants crossing up.

Faced with the horrendous situation in Libya, migrants have little choice but to attempt the sea crossing, with or without proactive SAR. This was clearly demonstrated by the report Death by Rescue which showed that the termination of the Mare Nostrum operation did not lead to less crossings being registered in early 2015 – only to more deaths.

NGOs collude with smugglers for pecuniary gain

The Italian coast guard on 2 August 2017 seized the Iuventa, a ship operated by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, on suspicion of aiding illegal immigration, and accused the crew of having contact with smugglers. However, Italian authorities stopped short of saying the NGO had colluded with smugglers for financial benefit, saying they believe the motivation was “exclusively humanitarian”. A previous investigation concluded in May 2017 by Catania’s chief prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro also found no evidence that the humanitarian groups were or are receiving illicit money from smugglers.

NGOs are abetting human smuggling

The UN Smuggling Protocol expressly prohibits the criminalization of smuggled migrants, reflecting the reality of the experience of people who may need to use smugglers’ services to reach their destination.

Scholars have recognized that “most asylum-seekers require smugglers at some, if not all, stages of their journey.” Felipe Gonzales Morales, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has described smuggling as a potentially life-saving operation: “In history, smuggling saved countless lives for Armenians exiting the Ottoman Empire, European Jews fleeing Nazi rule, Spanish Republicans, Central Europeans and Indochinese fleeing communism, Cambodians fleeing genocide, etc. Today, when no visa is available for anywhere, and one’s life or one’s family future is at stake, smuggling is often the only option.”

Amnesty Internationals denounced that in recent years, EU leaders, determined and virtually single-mindedly concerned with stopping arrivals, have made policy choices that ignore the lack of opportunities for arriving safely and regularly into Europe, and that pay no attention to the frustrations of being stuck in the first country of arrival in Europe, while one’s family and supportive communities are in another.

More importantly, policies in several EU countries have blurred the distinction between smuggling and trafficking, broadening the criminalization net to shield their borders.

While, as noted above, the distinctions between the two can sometimes overlap, as a study noted, “politicians and media frequently fail to distinguish trafficking and smuggling, often using the words as synonyms – usage which, deliberately or not, demonizes all transport of migrants and refugees as inherently evil”, thus making criminalization look justifiable, regardless of the specific circumstances and the adverse effects to the individuals in desperate need of protection.

NGOs make the crossing more dangerous for migrants despite their good intentions

The migrant mortality rate rose in early 2016 before NGO assets returned to the central Mediterranean following their winter break, and declined in parallel to their redeployment. The mortality rate rose again only when NGOs’ presence decreased at the end of the autumn.

There is, therefore, a striking negative correlation between the decreasing mortality rate and the rising number of NGO vessels, which shows that the latter made the crossing safer.

NGOs have also been accused of encouraging smugglers to use even poorer quality boats and more dangerous tactics, making the crossing more dangerous for migrants.

It is true that there has been a downward spiral in the practices of smugglers and conditions of crossing over 2015 and 2016. These include increasing use of bad quality rubber boats instead of the more solid wooden boats, providing less fuel, food and water, an increase of departures in more difficult weather conditions, and an ever higher degree of overloading.

But at the heart of the continuous degradation of the conditions of crossing since 2013, has been the violent and chaotic situation of Libya.

At the end of 2015, a new model of militialed smuggling emerged, which contributed to several of these shifts. The EU’s anti-smuggling operation, EUNAVFOR MED also had a significant impact on smugglers’ tactics by interdicting and destroying the vessels used by smugglers. This decision contributed to the shift from larger wooden vessels to cheap and less stable rubber boats. 

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