The Italian Prosecutor Who Wants To Sink Refugee Rescue Boats

Amid allegations of collusion with traffickers, charity boats saving migrant lives are under pressure to stop. They aren’t colluding, they say. And they won’t stop.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

ROME — Sicilian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has nothing against migrants and refugees, per se; just against those who save them. He has started a fracas in Italy by leveling charges of serious wrongdoing against the non-governmental organizations whose so-called “charity boats” trawl the Mediterranean searching for migrant and refugee vessels in distress.

Not only does Zuccaro imply that the charities are working directly with traffickers to determine where to pick up migrants at sea, rather than waiting for the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome to dispatch them, he also questions who is paying these benevolent organizations.

“I am convinced that it is not always the operational center that calls on the NGOs,” he told a parliamentary committee in Rome this week. “We also need to investigate the evolution of the phenomenon and find out why there has been such a noted proliferation of these ships and how they deal with such high operational costs without having a return in terms of economic profit.”

Zuccaro has not yet launched a formal criminal investigation, but he has given every indication that he will, recently telling the Times of London that he would not rule out sequestering the rescue vessels if he finds just cause.

The charity ship rescuers, unintimidated, say, “Bring it on.”

On Friday, rescuers with the joint operation between Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee held a press conference on their rescue vessel Aquarius that had just brought several hundred migrants and refugees rescued at sea to Catania, Sicily.

“We are surprised at the timing of these allegations, more than a year after we and others have been in service,” Sophie Beau, co-founder and vice-president of SOS Mediterranee told The Daily Beast by telephone after the press conference.

The Aquarius is the only rescue boat that runs year-round, and Beau believes that Zuccaro’s public accusations are meant to coincide with the spring season when many of the other boats will be joining the rescue efforts.

“We are here out of a moral and legal obligation after a failure of the European Union states to tackle the problem,” she said. “Everything we do is transparent; we have nothing to hide.”

The other rescue teams agree, wondering why anyone would accuse them of profiting from what is a dangerous job rescuing desperate migrants and refugees from sinking ships, often in grueling sea conditions. It is not exactly happy work.

Mobile Offshore Aid Station or MOAS, was the first such private rescue ship, founded in 2014 by American Christopher Catambrone and his Italian wife Regina.

Zuccaro has questioned how MOAS can afford a €400,000 a year budget on donations alone. MOAS, which adamantly denies allegations of wrongdoing and quite openly honors its many financial supporters, including Coldplay on its website, will introduce a fixed-wing maritime surveillance aircraft to its assets when it begins its first mission for 2017 this weekend. It says its donations are high because people are frustrated seeing lives lost at sea while Europe looks on.

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Other rescue boats expected to be in operation in the coming weeks include the German-flagged Sea Watch, Sea Eye, and Jugend, the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms, and the Dutch Lifeboat Project. Zuccaro says they all run at a minimum of €11,000 a day.

What makes Zuccaro’s accusations so frustrating for the rescuers is that they are not the only boats out there. The Italian Coast Guard says that charity boats saved just 26 percent of the 181,436 migrants and refugees who came into Europe through Italy last year.

The other refugees and migrants are rescued by Italian Coast Guard and Navy boats, the European Union’s Frontex border control assets, and by random merchant ships that are obligated by maritime law to answer a distress call if they are the closest vessel.

The merchant ships are often ill equipped to handle medical emergencies that many of those rescued need. Four babies have been born on the Aquarius since it started rescues a year ago, all safely because of the ship’s trained medical staff.

For years, Frontex has been a strong opponent of those ships waiting at sea for boats in distress. It claims that the phenomenon creates a “pull factor” that enables human trafficking by providing what amounts to a taxi service straight to Italy. Frontex also criticized the Italian Navy’s €9 million a month Mare Nostrum program that saved scores of people between 2013 and 2014 before being decommissioned for budgetary reasons. But even when Frontex vessels save people at sea, they are directed to take them to the Italian mainland.

The concept of a pull factor is hard to prove one way or another.

Migrants and refugees who make the journey from whatever hellish place they are leaving don’t have the luxury of choosing the safest route. Those rescued at sea are rarely from Libya even though the boats leave there, so returning them to such a lawless place is not seen as a humanitarian option.

Italy operates a safe corridor program for some Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon, but no one offers such an option for sub-Sahran Africans, who make up the bulk of the arrivals.

Joy, a young Nigerian woman who crossed the sea this winter, told The Daily Beast that no one told her how she would get to Italy beyond getting on a rubber dinghy. “I didn’t think anyone would rescue us, I thought we would hit land or die,” she said. “The traffickers don’t give you detailed information, they just say that they can get you to Europe.”

Joy was rescued by the Italian Coast Guard in January, not by a charity ship. When asked if she would come if there hadn’t been a rescue boats at sea, she said she didn’t understand the difference.

“It doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Libya is a horrible place, but so is Nigeria, so any risk seems better than where we were. But it’s not like you have a catalogue to look through for the best way over. You just pay your money and eventually someone comes to get you if no one puts you in jail or kills you first.”

Zuccaro’s focus so far has been on the migrants and refugees brought to Italy who were saved, not those who died trying.

The death toll would invariably increase without the presence of these rescue boats at sea, just as it did when Mare Nostrum stopped. And the death toll already is astronomical. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 46,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the last 15 years. To put that number in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about 200 passenger jets crashing into the water.

There is no solid evidence that removing rescue vessels decreases migration. When Mare Nostrum was decommissioned in 2014, the migrants kept coming, just as they did before it started. And if the charity boats are pulled, Beau says that won’t stop them from trying to escape their hell.

“We know exactly what will happen if we are not out there,” Beau says. “More people will die. We know we need to be out there, we have to be out there.”