Pros­e­cu­tor probes links of NGOs, smug­glers

De­mands source of res­cue ship fi­nanc­ing

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY FRANCES D’EMILIO

ROME | An in­ves­ti­ga­tion of hu­man­i­tar­ian groups op­er­at­ing mi­grant res­cue ships in the Mediter­ranean has turned up ev­i­dence of con­tacts be­tween some NGOs and Libyan-based hu­man smug­glers, a pros­e­cu­tor based in Si­cily said in com­ments pub­lished Sun­day.

Anti-mi­grant politi­cians im­me­di­ately de­manded to know who fi­nances res­cue ships run by NGOs.

Cata­nia Chief Pros­e­cu­tor Carmelo Zuc­caro was quoted as say­ing in an in­ter­view with La Stampa news­pa­per that his of­fice’s probe has re­vealed “ev­i­dence that there are di­rect con­tacts be­tween some NGOs and hu­man traf­fick­ers in Libya.”

Sev­eral non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions have op­er­ated res­cue boats in the Mediter­ranean just out­side Libya’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters.

Hu­man­i­tar­ian ad­vo­cates said that if it weren’t for them, count­less more mi­grants would per­ish at sea.

“Now and for some time al­ready, the NGOs are sav­ing lives in the sea,” Amnesty In­ter­na­tional of­fi­cial Gianni Rufini told Italian news agency ANSA. He challenged those sus­pect­ing deals be­tween NGOs and smug­glers to pro­duce proof.

Un­der mar­itime rules in­volv­ing dis­tressed boats, Italy’s coast guard, which co­or­di­nates op­er­a­tions in the search-and-res­cue zone be­tween Si­cily and Libya’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, fre­quently calls on pri­vate ves­sels near founder­ing dinghies or fish­ing boats crowded with mi­grants. In the past, nearby cargo ships were called to help.

But in­creas­ingly an ex­pand­ing num­ber of NGO ves­sels are pluck­ing mi­grants to safety.

Mr. Zuc­caro didn’t spec­ify how the ev­i­dence was ob­tained.

“We don’t know if and how to uti­lize this in­for­ma­tion in the ju­di­cial process, but we’re cer­tain enough of what we’re say­ing: [there are] tele­phone calls from Libya to some NGOs” and other ev­i­dence, the pros­e­cu­tor was quoted as say­ing.

Com­pared to the same pe­riod in 2016, the num­ber of mi­grants res­cued at sea and brought to Italy so far this year has jumped about 44 per­cent, to about 36,000.

Mr. Zuc­caro pre­dicted as many as 250,000 mi­grants might be res­cued at sea this year and taken to Italian ports, if the pace con­tin­ues.

Pop­ulist politi­cians raised an out­cry about what crit­ics have dubbed NGO “taxi ser­vices” for mi­grants.

NGOs are sus­pected of be­ing “in ca­hoots with hu­man traf­fick­ers,” said Luigi Di Maio, a top leader of the pop­ulist 5-Star Move­ment. “We want light shed on this, to know who fi­nances” the NGOs.

Echo­ing politi­cians from the far-right North­ern League, Mr. Di Maio cited fears there might be “crim­i­nals” among the mi­grants.

Mr. Zuc­caro dis­tin­guished be­tween a rash of new­comer groups es­tab­lished for the pur­pose of res­cu­ing mi­grants at sea and long-es­tab­lished hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“For the sus­pect ones, we must un­der­stand what they do; for the good ones, in­stead one must ask if it’s right and nor­mal that Euro­pean gov­ern­ments leave the task of de­cid­ing how and where to in­ter­vene in the Mediter­ranean to them,” he said.

The Euro­pean bor­der agency Fron­tex also has mil­i­tary ves­sels from sev­eral coun­tries that help res­cue mi­grants.

Last week, Italian Premier Paolo Gen­tiloni praised NGOs for sav­ing mi­grant lives, but said pros­e­cu­tors were right to in­ves­ti­gate any possible con­tacts be­tween NGO groups and the Libyan-based smug­glers.

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