“They are trouble, that is the true reason behind the slander”

Currently, the Italian media is mounting a large-scale smear campaign targeting organizations for civil marine salvage in the Mediterranean. Not only Frontex but also prosecutors and politicians try to discredit NGOs. A status report from Italy by Judith Gleitze, borderline-europe Sicily.

“It is an unbearable hypocrisy, especially if these attacks come from someone who holds office […] The existence of ‘smugglers’ and of the criminal system that organizes the voyage to Europe for migrants in the most cases are a direct consequence of European and domestic immigration policies (and this is the case since the Schengen Agreement in 1985),” says Antonio Cinieri on his blog “Migr-azioni” (5).

Since it was made public that not only Frontex is attacking NGOs which save human lives in the Mediterranean, the topic has come to the boil in Italy. Italian prosecutors, led by Carmelo Zuccaro from Catania (but also prosecutors in Palermo and Cagliari who investigate the relations between NGOs and Libya), repeatedly underline that there are signs that “some NGOs and traffickers in Libya are in direct contact.” They are “pretty sure,” according to Zuccaro, that this is true (4). However, ‘pretty sure’ is a more than vague statement of a prosecutor who has worked on a committee of five since the carnage of October 3, 2013 investigating refugee boat casualities. Additionally, it is more than questionable why a prosecutor has to come out with these kinds of statements over and over again. After all, his role is not the one of a politician who has to woo voters but that of a man of the law and as such he either has evidence or not—‘pretty sure’ is a rather unfortunate statement in this case. Yet, after the hearings before the Schengen committee in Rome in which, among others, Proactiva, SOS Mediteranée, and Eunavfor Med testified, it is “clear what is going on,” according to Zuccaro: “During the Easter holidays, 8500 people arrived. At the Libyan coast, many ships waited to set sail in the last couple of days, that seemed liked the invasion of Normandy by the Allies. We need to hurry. It is important to face the phenomenon: not only on a legal level as it cannot be solved in that way only; a complex approach is necessary (1).” Whatever that may mean. Zuccaro has mainly taken an interest in the funding of NGOs as he cannot imagine that there is, in fact, a widespread public support of their rescue missions which is mirrored in donations. As if it was an illegitimate action, he questions why these NGOs take money from multimillionaire George Soros (4). Disregarding that Soros and his Open Society Foundation have supported many projects in Italy and therefore there is nothing unlawful about this, none of the NGOs has received funding from Soros. Additionally, every NGO discloses their annual balance, secret funds from Libyan traffickers are surely not to be found there. Yet Zuccaro is not giving up: On April 27, recordings of a TV show from the night before are published in which the prosecutor even went a step further. He insinuates that some German NGOs and MOAS (he never mentions the Spanish, he again exempts MSF and Save the Children here) could directly be financed by traffickers, he would know of contacts. This traffic would work similarly well as drug trafficking. Even more disturbing would be that some of the NGOs might have very different goals such as, for example, destabilizing the Italian economy. The investigations were not finished and evidence could only be talked about when the case is taken to court. There would, however, be direct contact to people in Libya who have announced the taking off of boats. There would also be NGOs that do not follow the rules, according to Zuccaro (7a).

Beppe Grillo and Luigi Di Maio, the founder of the party “Movimento 5 stelle” and the vice president of the Chamber of Deputies from the same party, have now become a part of this act. One would have to look closely at the role of the NGOs as, after all, Frontex and the prosecution would be investigating and therefore the party “5 stelle” would not be the only one of this opinion. Those who fight back have something to hide [sic!]. The party has now filed for a “preliminary hearing” before the European commission to clarify the role of NGOs in the Mediterranean (1). However, even the Lega Nord is crying for the blocking of NGO ships and for prohibiting their entering of Italian waters (7a).

What is especially bad about this smear campaign is the attempt to jam a wedge between different NGOs. Zuccaro stated explicity in an interview in the daily newspaper “La Stampa” (8) that the two NGOs affiliated with Italy, MSF (Doctors without borders) and Save the Children, would be exempt from the accusations and instead targets German NGOs and the Maltese MOAS (1). One of the accusations—besides the mentioned alleged phone conversations with Libyan traffickers—is that NGO ships are illuminated during nighttime and therefore help traffickers to navigate. “Our ships are of course illuminated during the night, that is the law,” Axel Grafsmanns of Sea-Watch explains (7). Zuccaro demands: “For the accused [NGOs] we have to clarify what they are doing. For the good ones, we need to ask ourselves whether it is right and normal that the European governments leaves it open for them to decide how and where they intervene in the Mediterranean” (4). If we take a look at this sentence closely, it seems to suggest the following: Zuccaro appeals to nation-states to call back their NGOs who operate on international waters! Here, we need to reinforce that all NGOs cooperate during their rescue missions with the coast guard’s control room, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome and do not work on their own account!

And with this we are coming to the unfortunate ‘pull factor’ discussion: more NGO ships mean more departures. This accusation is not only proved wrong by a recent study in which this possible causal link was investigated. It turns out that more refugees departed when fewer rescue ships were there (1a). Andrea Spinelli Barrile explains in his article in the International Business Times: The polemical rhetoric began when the Financial Times (1b) published a report of Frontex in which there was talk about “undesired consequences,” that is, the ‘pull factor.’

Moreover, it is not true, as for example Grillo and Di Maio claim, that the Frontex report contains a note of NGOs as the “cabs for refugees” (2a). In an interview with the German newspaper “Die Welt” (1c) Fabrice Leggeri, director of Frontex, was quoted who commented on these accusations. In what way, however, as Spinelli Barrile points out, can we talk of a ‘pull factor’, as if refugees in Libya had the freedom to choose when, how and from where they depart or not?

“Maybe we should change up the discussion: What if the ‘pull factor’ is the isolationist and security-oriented policies and not the NGOs? According to Samer Haddadin, director of UNHCR in Tripolis, the louder European politicians yell about invasion and deportations, the more migrants try to leave Libya as soon as possible by boat. Today a trafficker tells his victims: ‘If you don’t leave now when Europe is still easy to reach, you won’t have the security to leave tomorrow (…) It is a marketing trick (4).” That means: whether NGO ships are at the coast or not, people try to leave now. This has turned out to be true in the first months of the year in which only two civil rescue ships were present yet, despite the bad weather conditions, 15,844 refugees departed (between 01/01 and 03/06 according to internal data of the Italian Ministry of the interior). In the previous year, there were only 9,101 people during the same period of time. Frontex, in contrast, has held itself aloof.

In an interview with Zach Campbell in “The Intercept” (10), an employee of Frontex who does not want to be named said: “In order to not create a pull factor, we are patrolling up to the „search and rescue“-area of Malta. We don’t cover Libya.” That way, migrants would be held back and would not depart. The IOM (International Organization for Migration), however, disagrees: at the beginning of April, already approximately 25,000 people had departed and more than 600 had died. Many of the migrants had reached the area north of Malta, yet had not reached NGO ships. And apparently also no one of Frontex’s… With the rise of the number of departures and the European illusion that they could regulate migration by making contracts with states like Turkey or Libya, NGOs were called to action according to Spinelli Barrile (4). “The number of NGOs in the Mediterranean has risen due to Frontex’s absence. International duties like marine salvage are not optional and the NGOs help European governments in this regard to fulfill these duties – [that is the reality], and not the opposite (4).” This sentiment is also supported by the organization Doctors without Borders (MSF): “There is no evidence that the rescue missions are a ‘pull factor.’ People in distress, people who were tortured, who experience war, persecution, and poverty will continue to cross the Mediterranean and they will die there. They will continue to do that until there are legal and safe options to reach Europe and to find protection there as well as a European system that helps and rescues at sea (1).”

Yet by now even some exiled Eritrean people like Don Mussie Zerai and Meron Estefanos are attacked. Zerai is an Eritrean pastor living in Switzerland whose phone number has been handed out to Eritrean refugees for years and who, therefore, gets a lot of emergency calls. Estefanos lives in Sweden and was called by Eritrean refugees in distress at sea for the first time in 2010. Since then she has also been contacted repeatedly (4). Zerai has published these emergency calls on Facebook for years. Today he transfers them to his colleagues at Alarm Phone (www.alarmphone.org) if he does not have the capacities to answer them. Now, Zerai and Estefanos are accused of being ‘middle men’ between traffickers and refugees (11).

Doctors without Borders are not only active with a rescue ship on the Mediterranean but also visit seven detention centers for migrants in Libya. The general director of MSF, Arjan Hehenkamp, thinks the accusations against NGOs are mainly caused by the upcoming elections: “We are in the middle of election campaigns, France, Germany, and Italy, the political stakes are very high right now. Te goal is to stop departures, to discourage refugees, to pacify public opinion. There is the attempt to intimidate NGOs and to discourage donations of citizens […] The polemical rhetoric has no factual basis and it is more than sad that I even have to say that (12).” Hehenkamp says that we need to do everything to help migrants to flee from Libya, the support of NGOs would be absolutely necessary (4).

MSF decided that to go public in a hearing before the defense committee of the senate in Rome on May 2, as the organization does not get its hopes up. Even when prosecutor Zuccaro keeps them out of the line of fire, they know only too well that this can change any day. “The accusations against NGOs active on sea are shameful and even more shameful is that it is politicians who kindle this flame with faulty statements, who spread hatred and discredit organizations whose only goal it is to save human lives,” says Loris De Filippi, president of MSF Italy (1). Similar to other NGOs, MSF points out that their work at sea is financed privately, that they follow maritime law, and that they operate in international waters. They would only operate in Libyan waters in cases of emergency and with the authorization of authorities (Libya, Italy). There were never any calls by traffickers.

MSF, similar to the German organization Sea-Watch, is ready to press charges based on libel. “That a representative of the law publicly accuses humanitarian organizations out of thin air without even talking to them is a scandal. Zuccaro makes himself complicit in a smear campaign against NGOs which is currently fabricated by representatives of Frontex and Lega Nord. He says himself that he does not even know how he wants to use the apparent evidence and still he partakes in slander and cheap propaganda. Because of this, Sea-Watch is currently looking into the legal basis in Italy to press charges for libel,” states Axel Grafmanns, CEO of Sea-Watch (7). MSF thinks about how the organization can protect itself to reestablish trust after the attacks (3). Save the Children, in contrast, seems to be happy to fulfill the role they got from Zuccaro. An unfortunate step in a time in which all rescue NGOs should stand together. “I am very happy about the difference prosecutor Zuccaro has made clear from the very beginning (…), by pointing out that MSF and we are above these suspicions. And I want to thank Gentiloni [Italian Primeminister, added by author] that he thinks that there should be no general suspicion toward all NGOs, who have helped people all over the world to survive for years. I do not know many of these other human rights organizations which have emerged during the last years. But all this animosity against those who save lives is quite astonishing,” the general director of Save the Children Italy, Valerio Neri, states in the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica” (3).

The organization INTERSOS (which also works with unaccompanied minors) and SOS Mediterranée (which is attacked itself) counter the attacks similar to MSF, Sea-Watch, and MOAS. It is, however, truly incredible that they even have to defend themselves.

With this, author and journalist Roberto Saviano (known for his book “Gomorra”) and Erri de Luca, one of the most well-known contemporary authors and scholars in Italy, agree. De Luca spent two weeks on “Prudence,” the ship of MSF, and has experienced the rescue missions himself. Saviano, in contrast, immediately reacted to Di Maio’s attacks from the party “5 stelle”: “This is irresponsible behavior to come up with these vague accusations against those who save lives, to throw dirt at them (3).” De Luca shares the opinion that there is neither rhyme nor reason in the accusations. An important voice in the current mudslinging. In an interview with the newspaper “Huffington Post” he tells of his time on board of “Prudence”: “Accusations that can only be called slander: there is nothing this is based on. The traffickers do not need to be in contact with the rescuers, as where they are active—in the so-called “search and rescue” zone—Libyan fisher boats are already present and they surely do not fish there but try to get the boats [or rather their engines, added by the author] back. Libyans patrol the coast along with the fishing boats and know exactly who is there and who isn’t. They sent the refugee boats no matter who is there. The only condition is that the sea must be calm. Not because they are so friendly but because a boat with 150 people and one external engine with 40 hp would not get very far. They let them start the moment the weather is fine. And now they are in a hurry as in May [probably not before June, added by author] Europe wants to give new boats to the Libyan coast guard. The traffickers and smugglers try to get rid of their ‘excess baggage’ as quickly as possible as they do not know what will happen. We heard of three boats that started during the night. How we heard of them? Simple: On board you have people who speak Arabic and control social media, it is easy to get news from departures via Facebook. (…) Another important thing: why do we constantly talk about ‘traffickers,’ who do not even are on these boats anymore? There are no drivers on these boats. The traffickers tell someone of the passengers to take the steering wheel, give them a compass and tell them they will be in Italy in three hours and good luck.” De Luca reports that during one rescue mission, MSF asked the migrant at the steering wheel to turn off the engines but he did not know how to do that and one member of MSF had to climb on board to turn it off.

“Who talks about an agreement between NGOs and traffickers talks nonsense. The point is, the presence of independent units on sea is trouble. MSF has refused money of the EU to be able to act more freely. They are trouble, that is the true reason behind the slander. They want to hit the organizations which are the only ones saving lives out there. Without them there would be a catastrophe. In politics, it is always about who gets the most votes. But this is a miscalculation out on sea, there are no votes out there (2).”

Where does this smear campaign against the NGOs active in the Mediterranean lead? Or better, who profits from it? As Erri De Luca points out: the political system that wants to create a closed Europe on the backs of refugees. Maybe we should put the cart in front of the horse and talk about the fact that the destruction of engines and ships through Eunavfor Med’s European mission “Sofia” has played a role in the death of people at sea? It is not the NGOs who are the ‘pull factor,’ the people will continue to embark on the dangerous passage of the Mediterranean if there is no legal way of entry and they will continue to accept the services of ruthless traffickers and smugglers because they do not have another chance. Those, however, do react to the destruction of their resources not to NGO ships. If engines and boats are taken away they will put migrants on cheap rubber boats unfit for sea that have bad engines. This is the only way to keep their economic losses in check.

Antonio Ciniero elaborates: “There is one simple way: to open the borders and to develop a new migration policy, which allows for legal and safe entry for those who try to emigrate and who have to flee. This means that we need to work on a new model of production and distribution of wealth, a model that puts humans at center. A model that brings economic issues back to their social contexts. A system that calls into question the current global power structure. The current migration is nothing more than a sign for the unbearable reality of the existing political and economic system (5).”

In her long essay author Daniela Padoan quotes two scholars of Oxford University in her last chapter: “Is this supposed to be the solution offered by European politicians for the refugee crisis? To threaten volunteers to diminish support? (…) The criminalization of volunteers aims at intimidating European civil society,” states Nando Sigona. Jennifer Allsopp adds: “The only way to fight back against the criminalization of those who help migrants and refugees is based on a constant and continuing mobilization of civil society (13).”

For this reason it is important that the trust in rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean is not lost. They do good work and the currently only right thing to save lives. The excessive and lethal defamation that only wants to distract from the actual problem of European helplessness and obduracy has to be stopped finally.

(1) http://www.repubblica.it/politica/2017/04/24/news/migranti_ong_rispondono_a_accuse_di_maio_falsita_reagiremo-163794015/

(1a) https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/03/border-deaths

(1b) https://www.ft.com/content/3e6b6450-c1f7-11e6-9bca-2b93a6856354

(1c) https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article162394787/Rettungseinsaetze-vor-Libyen-muessen-auf-den-Pruefstand.html

(2) http://www.huffingtonpost.it/2017/04/24/le-procure-perdono-tempo-m5s-diffama-in-cerca-di-voti-erri-d_a_22052907/?utm_hp_ref=it-homepage&ncid=fcbklnkithpmg00000001

(2a) http://www.unita.tv/focus/di-maio-saviano-le-ong-e-i-taxi-del-meditteraneo-la-polemica-continua/

(3) http://www.huffingtonpost.it/2017/04/24/polemica-di-maio-ong-il-grillino-replica-saviano-ci-accusa-ma_a_22052706/?utm_hp_ref=it-homepage

(4) http://it.ibtimes.com/le-ong-sono-accusate-di-cio-che-i-governi-dovrebbero-fare-aiutare-i-migranti-fuggire-dalla-libia#.WP4Ah18rWKo.facebook

(5) https://migr-azioni.blogspot.it/2017/04/non-volete-le-ong-aprite-le-frontiere.html

(6) http://www.internazionale.it/opinione/annalisa-camilli/2017/04/22/ong-criminalizzazione-mediterraneo

(7) https://sea-watch.org/phantasievorwuerfe-sea-watch-prueft-rechtliche-schritte-gegen-staatsanwalt-zuccaro/

(7a) http://www.corriere.it/cronache/17_aprile_27/migranti-procuratore-catania-ong-forse-finanziate-trafficanti-87d5ae3c-2b26-11e7-9442-4fba01914cee.shtml; http://www.rainews.it/dl/rainews/media/Migranti-ad-Agora-Rai3-il-procuratore-di-Catania-Carmelo-Zuccaro-Alcune-Ong-finanziate-dai-trafficanti-e44f464e-fb75-4124-acfc-61851f6152cd.html

(8) http://www.lastampa.it/2017/04/23/italia/cronache/abbiamo-le-prove-dei-contatti-tra-scafisti-e-alcuni-soccorritori-3fCnqLKWWRHBVUiygHv65K/pagina.html

(9) http://www.redattoresociale.it/Notiziario/Articolo/532935/Migranti-per-l-Europa-soccorrere-sembra-essere-diventato-reato

(10) https://theintercept.com/2017/04/01/europe-keeps-its-rescue-ships-far-from-the-coast-of-libya-where-thousands-of-refugees-have-drowned/

(11) https://www.tesfanews.net/italian-prosecuter-ngo-colluding-human-traffickers/

(12) http://it.ibtimes.com/libia-lunica-cosa-responsabile-da-fare-e-aiutare-la-gente-fuggire-1492916

(13) http://www.a-dif.org/2017/03/09/perche-danno-fastidio-le-ong-che-salvano-i-migranti-in-mare/