Features

The rescue racket

Are aid agencies colluding with people smugglers?

1 April 2017

9:00 AM

1 April 2017

9:00 AM

What is happening in the 300-mile stretch of sea between Sicily and Libya, day in and day out — in other words, what ‘we’ are doing there — is beyond reasonable doubt insane.

A sane person would assume that the 181,436 migrants (a new record) who made it by sea to Italy last year had done so under their own steam in flimsy fishing boats and dinghies at least some of the way across the Mediterranean. This, after all, is the message aid agencies and governments put out.

In fact, every one of those 181,436 was picked up by EU and non-government aid-agency vessels off the Libyan coast just outside the 12-mile territorial limit, then ferried across to Europe. The people-smuggler boats — more often than not these days dangerously unseaworthy rubber dinghies — chug out towards the 12-mile limit, send out a distress signal, and Bob’s your uncle.

Nearly all the migrants arriving in Italy are young men from West Africa, not refugees. They have the cash for a ticket on a smuggler boat (€1,500, give or take) so are not destitute. That’s getting on for £300 million in ticket sales last year. West African migrants are big business.

The justification for the presence of the EU and aid-agency fleets in the southern Mediterranean is to save lives, and in the case of the EU’s Operation Sophia to arrest people smugglers and destroy their boats. If the fleets did not patrol, there would be far fewer deaths, because far fewer migrants would dare to put to sea. There would be far fewer people smugglers. Yet thanks to this enormous rescue fleet, the Italian interior ministry expects 250,000 more migrant boat people.


The madness does not end here. There’s reason to suspect that the people smugglers are actually in direct contact with aid agencies, which is why they are so often first on the scene to rescue migrant boats — and this is a criminal offence.

Last week, the chief prosecutor in Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, revealed details of an investigation he has just begun amid growing suspicions of collusion between the agencies and the people smugglers. Where is the line, he asked, between aid and facilitation?

He told Italian MPs: ‘The NGOs often work near to the coast and territory of Libya. We have calculated that in the last four months of 2016, 30 per cent of the rescues which landed at Catania were carried out by these organisations. In the first months of 2017, that percentage has grown to at least 50 per cent.’

This Sicilian judge said the country with the most aid agencies operating in the central Mediterranean was Germany, with five organisations and six vessels (one costing £350,000 per month to keep at sea — over £4 million a year).

‘We must solve the problem of where the money comes from to sustain such high costs — who are the sources of this finance? We shall be doing checks on the NGOs who bring migrants into our jurisdiction. It is notable that the NGO ships are nearly always the nearest to the location of the emergency.

‘It’s not a crime to invade the waters of a foreign country to pick them up. What is punishable is bringing them to Italy without respecting the rules of engagement… vessels should take migrants to the nearest port, which is certainly not Italy.’ The nearest safe port, in fact, would be in Tunisia.

Last month the EU’s border agency, Frontex, also accused aid agencies of activities which ‘help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success’.

Its annual report says the smugglers now hardly bother to telephone the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome to be picked up, preferring to call aid-agency vessels directly. The reason is obvious: these people will not arrest them or confiscate their vessels.

Since June 2016, many boats have been rescued near the Libyan coast by aid-agency vessels ‘without any prior distress call’, suggesting the rendezvous has been pre-arranged. In Italy, the lynch-mob principle of ‘he must have done it’ is enough to secure convictions, so prosecutions are a distinct possibility.

But the only way to solve the migrant crisis — as the Frontex report says — is to stop all these West Africans getting to Libya. This would ensure too that the aid-agency humanitarians are not led into further temptation.

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