ROME—It is no great secret that Frontex, the European Union’s border patrol, strongly disagrees with the practice of rescuing migrants and refugees at sea. For years, it’s been warning that efforts to save the lives of migrants left on foundering boats and ships “create a pull factor” that entices people to attempt the dangerous journey.
The issue first came up with Italy’s Mare Nostrum humanitarian program, and today there are dozens of aid groups, from Save the Children to Doctors Without Borders and other less-known private organizations like MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) that risk high water and a lot of hellish situations to prevent mass drownings.
Since January 2016, nearly 360,000 people have made the deadly crossing to Europe, mostly to Italy, according to statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR.
Another 4,770 people are known to have died trying to make the crossing so far in 2016, and the figure likely would be much higher without rescuers risking their own lives to save others.
How does one parse the difference between the “pull” of a chancy rescue at sea and the push of war, famine, and poverty driving refugees and migrants to Europe’s shores? That’s hard to know, and further complicated by sinister and brutally cynical human traffickers who take advantage of a growing number of desperate people and exploit any opportunity they see to make money off them.
Now Frontex has taken the accusations against rescuers a step further. According to confidential reports obtained by the Financial Times and published Thursday ahead of a crucial European Union summit that will deal with migration, Frontex officials are accusing “charities operating in the Mediterranean of colluding with people smugglers.”
According to the Financial Times, Frontex wrote several reports in which it contends that smugglers had “clear indications before departure on the precise direction to be followed in order to reach the NGO boats.” That, coupled with what it says is a “drop in distress calls from boats carrying migrants” must surely mean that the NGOs are “colluding” with traffickers.
The rescuers, many of whom are out there on a volunteer basis, overwhelmingly disagree. Both Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders adamantly deny the allegations. So do the Italian coast guard and the Italian navy, whose spokesman told The Daily Beast, “The EU is surely looking for a scapegoat as a way to justify their blatant mishandling of the migrant crisis.”
Antonino Parisi, the Italy director of MOAS, also says the claims are false. “MOAS denies the alleged accusations mentioned in the article published by the Financial Times today. Our operations have always been conducted in coordination with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome as well as with any navy units present in the area,” Parisi said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “MOAS was created and continues to function in a legal and transparent manner within the framework imposed by International Maritime Law, Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and search-and-rescue conventions. MOAS’s primary aim has always been to mitigate the loss of human life at sea.”
The Daily Beast also reached a rescue worker on a rescue vessel that is currently docked in Sicily after delivering hundreds of people rescued over the last week. He said that most aid agencies do have local contacts on the ground in North Africa who often warn them when large ships are sent into the sea. “That’s hardly colluding,” said the rescue worker, who didn’t want his name used out of fear his organization could be punished. “What it does is give us a heads-up so we can try to save people.”
In an earlier report seen by the Financial Times, Frontex also charged that it found the “first reported case where the criminal networks were smuggling migrants directly onto an NGO vessel.”
Rescue groups argue that it is precisely because they are transparent, and because the rescue ships constantly tweet their activities, that they are easy to find, either by calling known helpline numbers, which are published on their websites and flyers that are distributed in refugee camps, or by searching ship locations on the Marine Traffic website, which includes all coordinates.
Smugglers hardly put safety first, but, in many cases, they also have people on the vessels, so being rescued is the preferred outcome.
On Wednesday, a court in Catania, Italy, sentenced Tunisian smuggler Mohammed Ali Malek to 18 years in prison for manslaughter after the wooden ship he was navigating in April 2015 crashed into a cargo ship trying to help save people. The migrant boat sank, killing more than 700 in what was the largest single loss of life known to happen in the current crisis.
That ship was brought to shore last summer and used as evidence against Malek and his Syrian first mate Mahmoud Bikhit, who was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the disaster.
Malek had called the Italian coast guard on a satellite phone preprogrammed with the number, which dispatched the closest ship in the area, the Portuguese-flagged King Jacob, which rushed to the scene in the absence of any rescue vessels in the area.
As for the drop in official distress calls that go through the Italian coast guard control room, an official in Rome says that’s because there are so many rescue boats out in the water—the sinking vessels are often spotted before calls for help can be made.
According to the Financial Times exposé, Frontex also takes issue with the use of spotlights from the rescue vessels to scan the waters for sinking vessels, especially at night, calling them a “beam for the migrants” to follow.
Gemma Gillie, with Doctors Without Borders, told the Financial Times that they actively search for boats in distress. “We spot them earlier. This is a response to the needs that we see at sea,” she said. “It is not about whether there is collusion between NGOs and smugglers: the issue is why so many people die, which is what Frontex should be focusing on. They should be looking at their own actions.”