More boats, more migrants, more deaths?
When the Financial Times published an exclusive report on December 14, 2016, citing a classified Frontex document accusing Ngos of colluding with human traffickers, the agency itself denied the fact and the article was revised. The document was one of the biweekly reports – subsequently published by Zach Campbell for The Intercept – that Frontex analysts write to sum up the situation. The report noted that the influx of migrants had gone from 154,000 in 2015 to 172,229 as of December 4, 2016 (181,000 by the end of the year). Over the same period, the number of deaths at sea had gone from 3,186 to 4,527 in the central Mediterranean alone (5,096 by the end of the year). In the meantime, the presence of humanitarian ships had also grown: 12 of them were operating even though, as Coast Guard Rear Admiral Nicola Carlone explained, “all ships were never present simultaneously in the search and rescue area.”
It is true that both humanitarian and military ships cruise what is known as the contiguous zone: that band of water which lies between 12 and 24 miles off the coast. The alleged correlation between the presence of ships, the swelling of migratory influx, and the higher number of deaths at sea “is an especially smart accusation, because it calls into question the ultimate goal of Ngos, which is to save as many human lives as possible,” Eugenio Cusumano, assistant professor in International Relations at the University of Leiden, explained to Open Migration. Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of Frontex, was the first to declare that, by their very presence, Ngos act as a pull factor, unwillingly increasing the number of deaths at sea. “The number has indeed increased,” Professor Cusumano observes, “but there are other aspects to consider: the ability to monitor the situation, to count the dead and the missing, has also improved; we have more naval research assets; we ask the migrants who is unaccounted for; and we salvage the rubber dinghies and use them to make estimates. Several Coast Guard officers have told us to treat these data with caution because the accuracy in our method of collection could have just improved.” He adds that “the controversy over the increased influx is unwarranted: over a million people arrived in Europe in 2015, and with the Eu-Turkey deal of March 18, 2016, the Balkan route was de facto closed. Given these conditions, an increase by 27,000 units in the central Mediterranean between 2015 and 2016 is insignificant.”
Frontex itself is more cautious than its own director. In its Risk Analysis for 2017 report, the agency used the phrase “pull factor” four times in 60 pages (with one occurrence unrelated to rescue missions at sea) and always in conjunction with the “push factors”: the reasons that drive people to leave. According to the analysts, the true undesired effect of the presence of so many vessels in the contiguous zone is something else: a change in the smugglers’ tactics, which has made monitoring the maritime borders more complex and hampered investigations into criminal networks, facilitators, and traffickers.
These same doubts were addressed by Admiral Enrico Credendino, head of the European mission Eunavfor Med – Operation Sophia, launched two years ago in order to fight trafficking, human and otherwise, in the Mediterranean. The mission is currently shifting from Phase 2 “Alpha” (the monitoring of international waters plus the training of Libyan Coast Guard officers) into Phase 2 “Bravo” (involving police operations in Libyan waters), but is dependant on an agreement within the UN and finding a credible spokesperson in Tripoli. “As for the pull factor,” Credendino said on February 4, 2016, when Frontex was accusing not the Ngos, but the military ships, “I will only remind you that 20, 22 merchant ships sail back and forth from Libya every day, and dozens are circulating in the area. Were it not for the military ships, migrants would be rescued by other vessels, even though we have saved 1,500 or 2,000 more people from death.” Credendino pointed out how this year, after the end of Mare Nostrum, the influx of migrants has not gone down, adding that “the migrants are aware of the dangers, as five ambassadors from Sahel countries confirmed to the Unitedd Nations. They know that there is a high risk of dying in the desert or out at sea, and that women are systematically raped, but they’d rather face the dangers than stay in their countries of origin.”
The claim that Ngos have made it difficult to investigate criminal networks and people smugglers does not seem entirely valid either. Both Credendino and Eunavfor Med have highlighted their success in repressing and investigating the phenomenon of human trafficking: 414 boats destroyed or confiscated, 109 turned over to the Italian authorities, and an 11.8 per cent share of total rescue operations, which is regarded as low, but rescue operations at sea are not the chief mandate of Eunavfor Med. These are the data as of April 6, 2017, cited by the admiral before the Italian Senate. Six months into their operation, Eunavfor Med could boast of intelligence gathering in their first biannual report, having mapped the traffickers’ business model (a business assessed to generate an annual revenue of 250 to 300 million euros, and in some cases over 50% of the revenue for some of the towns in Tripolitania); having stopped smugglers from recovering wooden boats (indicated as “valuable”) thanks to the gradual approach to Libyan waters; and having mapped the rivalries among competing smuggler groups, local militias, and even a case of a protest, on August 27, 2015, by citizens of Zuwarah against human traffickers, a reaction by Libyan civil society that forced the smugglers to relocate their activities somewhere else.
The statements released over the last two years remain valid today despite the cooling down of the relationship between Eunavfor Med and the various Ngos (the former was the European mission that organized the joint Shade Med Forums, such as the one of May 12-13, 2016, with 175 representatives from 74 organisations including governments, armed forces, and Ngos), and despite Operation Sophia units drawing back so as not to fuel Warsaw controversies. The point is very simple: is Frontex right in saying that proximity to Libya is problematic for border management and makes investigations more difficult? Or are Eunavfor Med and Admiral Credendino right when they boast about their successes? Both cannot be true.
Why don’t we take them to Malta?
Malta is the cornerstone of this argument. It is where the most criticised Ngo, Moas, is based and it’s the country currently holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Furthermore, Malta’s international port is also the place through which the rubber dinghies imported from China and used by people smugglers in Libya are passing (Aaron Farrugia, Ceo of Malta Freeport Terminals, declined to answer Open Migration’s questions on this matter). Over the past two years, La Valletta has been holding summits on the subject of migratory influx, the most recent of which took place in January this year, with Interior Minister Carmelo Abela and his Italian counterpart Marco Minniti. Finally, recent anonymous tips to the press have characterised Moas as a cover for surveillance and wiretapping activities carried out by the United States.
However, prosecutor Francesco Paolo Giordano from Siracusa, who is in charge of the port of Augusta (where most of the rescued migrants disembark), and police deputy commissioner Carlo Parini, who belongs to the task force that has been fighting illegal immigration since 2007, stated before the Senate that “an accurate macroscopic analysis of the MOAS vessels in our ports has not revealed the presence of any equipment for electronic espionage.”
Catania’s chief prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has wondered several times why Malta does not cooperate by shouldering some of the burden. While Malta’s reluctance to do so is an established political fact, the 2015 report on rescue activities from the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport reads: “In addition to its own Sar (Search and rescue area) adopted by Presidential Decree 662/94 in execution of the 1979 Hamburg Convention, Italy actually operates within an area of 630,000 square kilometres, which falls under the responsibility of Northern African states (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) and Malta. This situation is due to the fundamental inadequacy of the Coast Guard assets of said countries, or, as in the case of Malta, to the excessive size of the Sar in relation to the resources available to the country.”
It must be also noted that, of the four missions currently deployed in the Mediterranean (Triton-Frontex, Sophia, Mare Sicuro, and Nato’s Sea Guardian), the first has been carrying out rescue operations with one ship only (Norway’s Siem Pilot) for several months, while Admiral Credendino explained that with Sophia “all individuals found at sea – be they migrants or smugglers – are brought to the Italian authorities as this is what the Council of the European Union decided upon launching the operation.” Mare Sicuro is an operation run by the Italian Ministry of Defence, aimed at protecting the interests of the energy sector in the Mediterranean, and any unauthorized crossing into foreign waters would be seen as an act of war. The Ngos, on the other hand, answer to Rome’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (Mrcc), which always chooses the port where they are to land. The European Commission has been advised by Frontex to add Tunis to the list of such ports, despite Tunisia’s complete lack of asylum laws or a proper reception system. Even the “law of the sea”- often invoked when discussing rescue operations and used to distinguish between near and safe ports – is not derived from a single code, but rather a juxtaposition of the Solas Convention and the International Convention on Salvage (London, 1974 and 1989), the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR, Hamburg, 1979), and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, Montego Bay, Jamaica, 1982). All of these were implemented in the Italian legal system during the 1980s and the 1990s, and form the basis for the National SAR Plan of 1996, available on the Italian coastguard website.
The accusations from the Libyan Coast Guard
Tripoli’s Coast Guard has joined the accusations, claiming that the Ngos are the cause for the higher number of migrants. The very same Lybian Coast Guard has in turn been accused of colluding with people smugglers, and fired 13 shots at the Msf vessel Bourbon Argos on August 17, 2016. On September 9, they apprehended two aid workers of the Sea-Eye organisation who had crossed into Libyan territorial waters aboard a rubber dinghy and held them for 48 hours in a detention centre. Finally, on October 21, 2016, they interfered with a Sar operation, blocking the distribution of life jackets, beating the migrants with sticks and causing many of them to slip into the water. The incident, as related by Sea-Watch, was initially denied, but was mentioned in the second biannual Eunavfor Med report. Furthermore, Libyan military officers can be seen in a video arguing with Italian Navy officers from Mare Sicuro over the right to bring an empty rubber boat and its engine back to Libya. When refused, the Libyans offer a deal: “You keep the rubber boat, we keep the engine.” Tripoli has often claimed that these incidents involved unidentified militias wearing Libyan Coast Guard uniforms. If this is true, it is difficult to conceive how these unspecified militias could be conspiring with the Ngos while firing at their boats at the same time.
Are the NGOs going dark?
The controversy over transponders is interesting: while humanitarian ships are being accused of obscuring their positions and hiding from the authorities, on November 30, 2016, Eunavfor Med reported to Brussels that “smugglers seem to be aware where they can reliably find rescuing assets, particularly from the Ngos which broadcast their position via the Automatic Identification System”, the same service used by several websites to track routes and locations. If smugglers and small online services are able to know the coordinates of humanitarian ships, then so can Frontex, Italian prosecutor’s offices, and European military commands.
Occasionally, global satellite systems such as Iridium GPS may not work. It is good practice, especially for the safety of one’s crew, to check connectivity and satellite response every 30 or 60 minutes (at least at night), and to periodically send emails to the Mrcc with one’s coordinates, cruising speed, any incidents or malfunctions, and to note down all of this information in the logbook. Humanitarian crews take such precautions all the time, even in the absence of standardised protocols for humanitarian operators.
Another odd controversy being stirred up by Zuccaro is the one over the alleged use of lights at night so that migrants can see the ships. In point of fact, every sailing vessel keeps sidelights on to be visible and prevent collisions. Furthermore, Chinese-made rubber dinghies without a keel become unmanageable at a sea state as low as 2, and the pilots are often amateur helmsmen unable to steer the boats wherever they want.
Finally, the Ngos are accused of keeping vessels registered in tax havens or flying flags of less than transparent countries. Legal loopholes are routinely used by shipping and civilian crews around the world to cut costs. In the case of Ngos, vessels are leased from ship-owners who register them in the most convenient locations for tax reasons. Ngo financial budgets, however, do not depend on the flags, but on the country where the organisations are based. The best known among them are from the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, France, and Malta.
Ngos are not the police
On May 3 before the Senate Carmelo Zuccaro called for “criminal police officers to board Ngo ships”. At this point, one thing must be noted: primarily for safety reasons, humanitarian principles dictate that Ngos do not side with political or military institutions during a crisis so as to avoid repercussions from the adversary, in this case the smugglers. If Msf asked Nato troops to defend one of their medical units, for example, they would instantly become a military target for the Taliban. That band of water is patrolled by Eunavfor Med precisely because it is regarded as unsafe for regular police units. The presence of men in uniform aboard a civilian vessel might trigger kidnapping attempts or diplomatic crises.
Additionally, those shipping or civilian crews whose safety is threatened do not turn to the national military for help but to private security and military services companies (Pmsc), composed of former contractors who operate under different rules of engagement and rules of force: keeping a pirate ship at bay is not the same thing as inspecting it, seizing it, or identifying its crew members.
Does saving lives amount to abetting illegal immigration?
On March 22, 2017, before the Schengen Committee of the Italian Parliament, Zuccaro wondered out loud: “Even though they are probably not pursuing profits, these organisations [Ngos] are still guilty of violating Article 12 of the Bossi-Fini law, are they not? As soon as there is as case, I will launch an investigation.” In the end, he didn’t. But the prosecutor’s office in Trapani did, launching an investigation about an individual belonging to an Ngo that allegedly initiated a rescue operation before receiving a distress call. An investigation of a single incident – originating from a brawl aboard a migrant boat – unrelated to the possible existence of a criminal link between the Ngo and the smugglers, an issue which, if continuing, should fall under the responsibility of the District Anti-mafia Directorate of Palermo.
Before news of the investigation broke out, Ambrogio Cartosio, deputy chief prosecutor in Trapani, had said: “The Ngos necessarily have an ethical code independent of individual state legislation. They need to be able to move freely in international waters, and there are countries, such as Italy, where abetting illegal immigration is a crime and others where it is not.” Regardless of the individual ethical codes, Article 12.2 of the Consolidated Bill on Immigration reads “rescue activities and humanitarian assistance do not constitute a crime” but only “when carried out in Italy for the benefit of foreign nationals in need who are on Italian territory.” There are no references to international waters. General Stefano Screpanti of the Guardia di Finanza, however, mentioned this point in 2015 during a roundtable at the Ministry of Defence, pointing out that the protection of human lives in national or international waters or contiguous zones takes priority over the fight against illegal traffic, even for law enforcers: “even a police police operation, when it involves danger, becomes a rescue operation,” he said. This means that, if the crew of a ship carrying 20 tons of hashish sets the vessel on fire and jumps into the sea to evade arrest, the Guardia di Finanza will interrupt the anti-narcotics operation and turn it immediately into a search and rescue operation.
Cover image: A deflating rubber dinghy carrying 125 people (including two pregnant women) is rescued by the crew of the ship Aquarius. (Image: Federica Mameli/SOS Méditerranée/Luz).
Translation by Francesco Graziosi. Proof-reading by Alexander Booth.