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Italy vs. migrant rescue crews

The Italian government accuses humanitarian teams of aiding illegal immigration

Aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms approach an overcrowded boat of African migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast. Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Tosco (file)

Italy vs. migrant rescue crews

European nations in recent years have struggled to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. At the same time, aid groups partnered with shipping vessels to rescue stranded refugees from unreliable inflatable boats. But now, some of those groups are facing charges because of their rescue work.

Prosecutors on the Italian island of Sicily last week, following a three-year investigation, accused three aid groups and 21 people of assisting illegal immigration and collaborating with human smugglers. The case is just the latest escalation in an ongoing battle between the populist Italian government and rescue charities over how to help the thousands of migrants and refugees seeking entry into Italy.

The allegations claim rescue boats run by German nonprofit Jugend Rettet, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders worked directly with smugglers in 2016 and 2017 to pick up more than 14,000 migrants and refugees and return the smugglers’ boats. The prosecutors also targeted boat captains, heads of mission, and legal representatives, all of whom have denied the accusations. The charges carry a maximum 20-year-sentence.

Dariush Beigui, captain of Jugend Rettet’s Iuventa ship, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his crew did nothing wrong, referring to a computerized reconstruction he said refuted the allegations. But he said he was not afraid of a prison sentence: “European prison is like a luxury hotel when you compare it with the Libyan camps where the people flee from, [who] we rescue at sea.”

Italy once served as the major arrival point for migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean route into Europe. Cooperation with Libyan coastguards limited smugglers for a while. But arrivals picked up again last year: 34,154 migrants came to Italy, compared to 11,471 in 2019. More than 6,000 migrants have arrived along the Central Mediterranean route this year, and at least 200 others died.

Italian and other European authorities have long blamed rescue vessels for encouraging travel along the dangerous route and have pushed to halt search and rescue operations. The European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency reported nine new legal proceedings against rescue crews between June and December last year. In a separate case on March 1, Italian authorities in the city of Ragusa launched an investigation into Mediterranea Saving Humans. Authorities said the aid group illegally received payment from the Danish Maersk shipping company in exchange for picking up some 27 migrants stranded at sea for more than a month.

Doctors without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), faced another charge on the Italian island of Catania. A judge said MSF employees and other crew members illegally dumped hazardous water at Italian ports after rescue missions. MSF denied all accusations and told The Guardian its six humanitarian ships have saved thousands of people at sea: “As a medical-humanitarian organisation, engaged for 50 years in over 80 countries, including Italy, our hope is that the sad story of the criminalisation of those who help will end in a timely manner.”

In a March report, the Council of Europe noted the continent’s rescue capacity is “regressing” and called for improved assistance and cooperation along the key migratory routes: “Member states’ approaches still appear to focus on limiting NGOs’ life-saving work, rather than seeing them as filling a crucial gap left by the member states’ own disengagement.”

Prominent Chinese lawyer missing

Wang Yu was one of several women slated to receive recognition during the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award online ceremony on Monday. Her absence sparked concerns that Chinese authorities detained her.

Wang was one of several rights lawyers detained in July 2015 during China’s crackdown on rights advocates, commonly called the “709.”

Wang’s friend Chen Jiangang told the South China Morning Post that Wang and her husband Bao Longjun had not answered their calls since Sunday, when Bao said public security officers told them not to leave Guangzhou, China.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said she had been out of contact for two days. “She has represented cases involving abused children, ethnic minorities, women, and religious adherents, and her work has brought government pressure on her through today,” he said. “We’ll be following up and, if necessary, speaking out on her case.” —O.O.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.



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