Freitag, 14. April 2017

The Reason the NGOs Are Being Attacked Right Now

Exactly a week after the press conference held on board the Aquarius, the SOS Mediterranee and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ship has come back in to port at Catania. Despite the vehement criticisms, the NGOs have continued to patrol the Mediterranean and rescue migrants, saving hundreds of people from certain death and demonstrating that sea rescue missions are more necessary today than ever before.

The Aquarius at Catania

At the landing on April 7th, the port was guarded more rigorously than usual, to the extent that the quay beyond the landing zone itself was completely closed off, impeding all access to it and limiting the ability to watch the operations.

For further information on recent landings and the rejection notices related to them, see:

The response of the Aquarius to the campaign against the NGOs working in the Mediterranean
The press conference held by SOS Mediterranee and MSF on March 31st responded to the critical campaign launched against them for weeks in the press and on television. Representatives of the two NGOs, medical staff and the maritime crew provided clear responses to a dozen questions, some deriving from the baseless accusations which have had such resonance recently, rather than on a real understanding of the dynamics of the Mediterranean route.

The responses were enough to completely undo the accusations levelled against the humanitarian organisations operating at sea. Indeed, the NGO representatives underlined the close collaboration between private vessels carrying out search and rescue operations, and the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, the authority which receives requests for rescuing, and sends the nearest ships to the scene, whether private or military. Whenever a humanitarian ship becomes aware of a boat in distress, the position is communicated to the MRCC, the authority with the task of coordinating all the operations in Italy's search and rescue zone, the area of water where the NGOs operate. The choice of port for the landing is also communicated to the vessels directly from Rome. Any accusation regarding the NGOs complicity with traffickers unravels as soon as it is shown that their activity (carried out exclusively in international waters and with full respect for maritime law) is performed in collaboration with Italian authorities.

The press conference on board the Aquarius
In the end, despite so many rumours, SOS Mediterranee has clearly stated that they are not involved in any investigations, and that they have never been contacted by any judicial authority.

But why now?
A question which still requires an answer, however, is one which the organisations themselves posed to the journalists. Why only now, around two years after the first rescue operations by NGOs, has this media campaign against them taken off, and why by Italy in particular?

There is no easy answer. Nevertheless, it is clear that we face a political and media operation which began with a few accusations and rumours set in motion by Frontex and some European governments in relation to all of the search and rescue operations, including the military ones. The aim of these accusations has been to attribute the increasing number of those dying at sea to the presence of the rescue ships, distorting reality and completely removing responsibility from Europe's migration policy of closing the borders. The International Migration Office has already registered 667 deaths of people trying to arrive in Europe since January 2017. The number of victims since the year 2000 till today is more than 25,000 people. The responsibility for this massacre lies only with those who are blocking legal access to Europe – both from those who are fleeing from war and violence and those fleeing misery and poverty – and not with those who are trying to stop it. To keep on with a policy of closing the borders will only cause more death, because the choice which migrants face is either to die in Libya – which by now has become an open-air prison – or to cross the Mediterranean, putting their own lives at risk in the most dangerous migrant route in the world.

The objective: to close the Mediterranean route
The reasons for the attacks on the NGOs need to be looked for in recent developments in European and Italian policies, which are aiming to close the Mediterranean route. Europe, thanks above all to its Italy's activities, is doing everything possible to contract out border control on its southern border with Libya, in order to make it impossible for anyone to reach the Italian coastline from the North African country. The model is the same as the agreement between Turkey and the EU, which announced the closure of the Balkan route a year ago, delegating the control of Europe's eastern border to Erdoğan. The activities of the Minister of the Interior, Minniti, and the Protocol of Understanding signed with Libya in February show that this is the precise intention.

Read in this light, the media campaign against the humanitarian organisations is clearly a political operation orchestrated against those parts of civil society which, in patrolling the Mediterranean, inform the public about how lethal the route is, and how necessary it is to create safe and legal passage for everyone, as well as humanitarian corridors. Furthermore, the NGOs represent awkward witnesses to what is happening in Libya, a non-peaceful country, without a stable government with proper control across the territory. The Libyan Coast Guard itself, with whom the EU has organised training operations, is frequently involved in human trafficking, as well as robbing the victims of human trafficking while at sea. The organisations are collecting, mission after mission, witness accounts of the violence which the militia – those of the government and otherwise – are unleashing on migrants, including kidnappings, torture and enslavement, all acts about which the powers at be do nothing, the very same powers with whom Europe and Italy are negotiating an agreement. This is the country which Europe and Italy consider a trustworthy partner in the struggle against migration. This might be one of the reasons that the organisations need to be made to keep quiet, and why they are now being subjected to unprecedented accusations.

Admiral Credendino on the role of the NGOS: the Defence Commission

Even the Senatorial Defence Commission has begun a preliminary investigation into the activity of the humanitarian sea missions. For now they have heard Admiral Credendino, head of the EunavforMed operation Sophia, which is mandated to combat human trafficking, to respect the arms embargo against Libya, and to train the Libyan Coast Guard. The Admiral had to respond to a host of questions, the majority of which were on the role of the NGOs in the Mediterranean. Asked about the “pull factor” of the humanitarian vessels, Credendino recalled that the Mare Nostrum mission had received the same accusations – criticisms which were proven incorrect by the facts, given that following the end of the military operation the number of boats actually increased. According to the Admiral, the reasons for the departures are quite different, and need to be sought for in migrants' home countries, and above all the situation in Libya, rather than that of the rescue ships, which do nothing other than respect rights at sea. In response to the endless questions coming from the right-wing, the soldier recalled that the rescuing of persons in distress also allowed one to enter the territorial waters of another country. Furthermore, the reason that the rescue ships find themselves so close to Libyan waters is that Italy – precisely because one cannot let people die at sea – has temporarily taken charge of a Libyan 'search and rescue zone', while awaiting the development of maritime coordination by Libya itself.

In the coming days the same Commission will hear from various NGOs working at sea, as well as Frontex. It will be important to follow these hearings carefully in order to understand the next steps in the campaign of criminalising the NGOs engaged in saving the lives of thousands of people.

Nicolas Liuzzi
Borderline Sicilia

Project "OpenEurope" - Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus
Translation by Richard Braude