1) The ship of the NGO Jugend Rettet may have actually broken the law
In the seizure order for the Iuventa – the vessel used by the German NGO Jugend Rettet – the magistrates highlight its excessive proximity to the Libyan coast near Sabratha and the presence, during some rescue operations, of so-called “facilitators”, a relatively new figure explained here by Lorenzo Bagnoli. The Iuventa is described as “small and very old” (it is a 33-metre boat from 1962 that was specifically bought for rescue missions) and as “the boldest” among NGO ships. Furthermore, its crew is accused of “returning empty vessels to other individuals lingering in the rescue area on small wooden and fibreglass boats” when those rubber dinghies are to be “cut and scuttled” instead. It is worthwhile clarifying, however, that NGOs – including the smallest ones like Sea Watch and Jugend Rettet – have always followed and documented this practice though those in charge of such operations have never been specified and the police have even referred to it as destruction of evidence.
In the documents, the humanitarian purpose and non-profit nature of the NGO is acknowledged, and that “no compensation” was received for the alleged offences. Nevertheless, the crew of the Iuventa might still have been reckless enough to break the law with individual episodes of seemingly “agreed deliveries” of migrants. Every charge must be proven in court in the months to come; the first article we published about the seizure explains the nature of such allegations and the more general context they reveal.
Those elements related to the general “climate” contained in the papers seem to portray an “antagonistic” NGO, which may or may not have pushed the Iuventa too close to the coast and to so-called “facilitators”; be that as it may, this is by no means indictable per se.
2) The private guards on board the ships – the source of the prosecution’s case – do not appear to be impartial toward NGOs
It is important to remember that some NGOs use their own boats for rescue operations, while others, usually the largest and most organised ones, rent suitable vessels from private shipowners who often hire armed guards to guarantee their safety.
The pending charges against the Iuventa as well as the subsequent wiretaps and bugging involve some of these privately hired security guards, in particular on board the Von Hestia ship used by Save the Children. In the documents, they mix gossip, second-hand information, allusions, personal dislikes, prejudices, and profound gaps in knowledge. For example, they do not know why NGOs cannot participate in police operations involving those rescued or in actions leading to forced repatriations; nor that the “smugglers” aboard the dinghies (or the helmsmen, more precisely) are often migrants themselves who agree to steer the vessels in exchange for the price of their journey; nor that Italy has made more than one mistake in the identification of alleged smugglers, the most striking one being the Mered case.
And yet, private guards keep sniffing around, as the papers state: “They do not stop it [an NGO ship] immediately, but…find another way to intervene.” In a sense, their interests are antithetical to those of the rescue crews. They are very eager to cooperate with authorities, but at the same time they are afraid of causing the ship they work on to be seized. They disagree with NGOs that refuse to hand over to the police any videos/photographs taken on board which will later be used for the public communication of the organisation itself. Seemingly annoyed by the NGOs’ apparent need to keep working, they in turn are worried about losing their jobs while considering moving their headquarters to Malta where taxation is lower and they could pay their employees better. In the meantime, they are trying to protect themselves with a clause (added in the agreement between safety agency and shipowner) guaranteeing their full payment even if their ship stops sailing. In relation to media coverage on NGOs, private guards have stated that “the result of the Committee [the Senate Defence Committee that in spring excluded any collusion between NGOs and smugglers in the Mediterranean] will have a minor impact [on public opinion].”
3) The Italian police question the behaviour of the Libyan Coast Guard
Considering that the Libyan Coast Guard is the main ally of the Italian government in stopping migration flows at the moment, it is interesting to read that the police were paying special attention to their conduct up until just a few weeks ago. This happened in a context in which the UN accused the Libyan Coast Guard of conniving with smugglers, and in which some Libyan police adopted extremely aggressive behaviour with NGO ships in international waters, including shootings and volleys of gunfire (the most critical episode resulted in Sea Watch reporting the Libyan Coast Guard to the International Court of Justice; the most recent is the two-hour seizure of the ProActiva Open Arms ship on August 15). And it is precisely within this context, after disobeying the instructions of the Italian Coast Guard (Imrcc) on one occasion, that, as a sort of punishment, the Iuventa was forced to dock in Lampedusa to disembark only a few people (instead of moving them to another ship and remaining on the open sea). On this occasion, the police questioned the crew in a climate that the operators have described as non-hostile. The documents quote the questions asked by policemen multiple times, which did not focus on the behaviour of Jugend Rettet at sea, but rather on that of the Libyan Coast Guard (which was also present during one of the critical episodes for the Iuventa, on June 18, 2017).
— Oscar Camps (@campsoscar) August 15, 2017
(The position of the Golfo Azzurro when it was seized by the Libyan Coast Guard on August 15)
4) The Italian Coast Guard does not have the power to certify foreign rescue vessels (and feels attacked)
The Coast Guard cannot ensure the good condition and operability of those vessels which do not fly the Italian flag as it can with Italian ships. The papers read: “The problem is that if the Iuventa sinks with 400 migrants on board, the Imrcc will be fu**ed for being the ones who sent it.” It is interesting to notice that, at the moment, neither the code of conduct nor any official legislative proposal contains possible solutions for this legal gap. In general, in wiretapped conversations the Italian Coast Guard is described as competent and correct, in control of the situation, but at the same time under fire from the media and their campaign against sea rescues. An officer on the Diciotti ship says to one of the tapped persons: “the Coast Guard is under attack, too.”
5) The seizure of the Iuventa continues to seem connected to the NGO’s refusal to sign the “code of conduct”
The German NGO Jugend Rettet, together with other NGOs, chose not to sign the Interior Ministry’s code of conduct on July 31, and the seizure order was issued August 2. The deputy prosecutor of Trapani maintains that this “has nothing to do with the NGO refusing to sign the code of conduct.” The documents, however, reveal that while the first of the three episodes for which the Iuventa is accused took place in September 2016, the other two occurred in mid-June 2017, which was after the commotion caused by Catania’s prosecutor Zuccaro after the rescues during Easter (could it be considered a warning to the Iuventa?), and before the delegitimization campaign against NGOs during the negotiations for the code of conduct in August.
But one doubt still remains: why was the seizure of the Iuventa ordered less than 48 hours after the refusal to sign, not one month earlier or one month later? And had Jugend Rettet signed, what would have happened? When would they have been informed that they were under investigation? Or was the hope that the Iuventa, after accepting, would stop of its own accord?
6) Asking Jugend Rettet to sign a code of conduct forbidding the transfer of people basically implied stopping the Iuventa
From the papers, it appears that the Iuventa usually acted as both a first aid and a rescue “platform” which did not ever take the migrants directly to port, but transferred them to those ships indicated by the Coast Guard before going back to the open sea. Signing the prohibition to transfer people to other vessels, save extraordinary cases, would have forced the Iuventa to have to reach the first safe harbour and disembark those it had rescued every single time, and thus keep it away from the front line for several hours.
7) Jugend Rettet: social commitment between passion and risk
Jugend Rettet represents a concept of an NGO that differs from the larger and more experienced organisations. More generally speaking, the small NGOs that for the last two years have come to help in the dramatic Mediterranean situation are characterised by a marked militant spirit, a do-it-yourself kind of approach resulting from the idea that institutions tend to evade their responsibilities. During a wiretapped conversation, S., who is connected with a small NGO that provided the Iuventa with medical equipment, claims to have “formally dissociated himself” from any conduct which may contravene Coast Guard indications. He thinks that the members of smaller NGOs “are too inflexible and want to uncover contradictions at all costs.” According to him, Jugend Rettet operators have “a kind heart, no one could deny it,” but haven’t understood the difference “between humanitarian operations and Greenpeace” (hinting at the environmental group’s infamous boardings of other ships) and he fears “bursts of gunfire” (from the Libyan Coast Guard). Moreover, he is convinced that sea rescues be kept separate from a stance against the Italian government: “If we say to the newspapers that we [Italians] are paying the Libyan Coast Guard for work we cannot do, we are expressing a political opinion; now, we have to admit the legitimacy of this activity from a legal point of view, though, from a political perspective, it is a crime against humanity.”
From the various descriptions contained in the documents, the Iuventa seems like a sort of Berliner squat out in the middle of the sea – very well organised, radical, and antagonistic. Many acknowledge its great efficiency in first aid missions thanks to its well-trained and quick operators: “There is something that spurs these young folks on, but this something could also lead them astray.” In fact, the Iuventa could potentially endanger both its crew as well as the rescued migrants: “The risk is putting a healthcare team on board which will actively seek an accident,” they say, then force the Italian Coast Guard to “rescue the rescuers.” One of the main issues is that the Iuventa gets too close to the 12-mile limit of Libyan waters, and thus risks coming into contact with the aggressive Libyan Coast Guard. Some people consider it wiser to stop further back, on the edge of the 24-mile area, rather than “acting the heroes within the 12 miles”; others, in accordance with the laws in force and considering that most rescue operations occur between the 12 and 24 miles, conclude instead that “you can’t leave people there, they could easily drown.”
Another concern is that the Iuventa could potentially cause an accident that would compromise the image of all NGOs at a moment when there are those seeking any excuse to exclude them from the rescue missions. In addition, keeping an eye on the near future when Libyan ships come into action as per the agreement with the Italian government, going too far and seeing too many vessels could paradoxically become a way of denouncing migrants and helping with refoulements as NGOs would then be forced to communicate the sightings without being able to intervene.
8) The true problem has always been the 12 or 24-mile limit
Though the Interior Ministry’s code of conduct insisted on the presence of armed policemen aboard and prohibited the transfer of passengers, the true core of the problem has always been the 12 or 24-mile limit. This comes out very clearly in the wire-tappings, whether favourable or unfavourable to the Iuventa, which is why the points of the NGO code of conduct (or of “mass distraction”, as it has been called) look more and more paradoxical and completely outdated in the face of recent events. The real question – and, as the papers show, the NGOs understood it very well – was just how far these organisations and their rescue missions would physically be allowed to go, and how to avoid finding themselves forced to cooperate with refoulements. “We don’t have a problem today, but we’ll have one in a month’s time [when] there’ll be more Libyan ships,” someone says, referring to the risky behaviour of the Iuventa. And as regards MSF (Doctors without Borders): “If the rules of engagement go beyond humanitarian purposes, they will take a step back” (which is exactly what eventually happened).
Truth be told, even the Italian Coast Guard often reached the 12-mile limit in the past in full compliance with the law. But now, reading about this age-old problem almost makes one laugh; the Libyan Coast Guard has unilaterally extended its area of competence up to about 100 miles without any objection from the Italian government. One could almost think that, from the very beginning, the plan was to push everyone away and leave a free hand to Libyan refoulements, neutralising both rescue missions and the testimonies of the NGOs.
Translation by Lucrezia De Carolis. Proofreading by Alex Booth.
Cover photo: An MSF RIB rescues a wooden boat off the Libyan coast on June 9, 2017. On that day, five boats were rescued with 597 migrants aboard, including 52 children. (Photo: Andrew McConnell/MSF)