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Refugee rescuers charged in Italy with complicity in people smuggling

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

After an investigation lasting almost four years, Italian prosecutors have charged dozens of rescuers, from charities including Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, who were accused of collaborating with people smugglers after saving thousands of people from drowning in the Mediterranean.

Investigators in Trapani, Sicily, formally closed the inquiry on Monday and charged more than 20 people, including boat captains, heads of mission and legal representatives, with crimes carrying sentences of up to 20 years.

As reported by La Repubblica, at least three rescue boats are at the centre of the charges: Iuventa, a former fishing vessel run by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, Vos Hestia, operated by Save the Children, and Vos Prudence, run by MSF.

Prosecutors claim rescuers arranged a direct handover of the refugees and migrants from smugglers’ boats, returning the boats to be reused.

The Iuventa crew, MSF and Save the Children deny all the accusations.

“Saving lives is never a crime,” Francesca Cancellaro, lawyer for the Iuventa crew, told the Guardian. “We will prove that all the operations of the Iuventa crew were absolutely lawful. While the EU turned away from the Mediterranean, transforming it into a mass grave for Europe’s undesirables, the crew of the Iuventa headed to sea as volunteers, in order to protect the fundamental rights to life and to seek asylum, as required by international law and even more importantly, human solidarity.”

Migrants onboard the Iuventa
Migrants onboard the Iuventa after they were taken off an overcrowded dinghy. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Dariush Beigui, captain of the Iuventa, said: “As long as governments break their own laws, international conventions and maritime law, all accusations are like a joke to me. It would be funny if it didn’t mean death, distress and misery for the people on the move.”

Related: ‘Help and you are a criminal’: the fight to defend refugee rights at Europe's borders

Save the Children said it had always acted in full compliance with international law and with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. “We have always worked solely and exclusively to save lives,” it said. “We are confident that the propriety of our work will be confirmed, when all the facts have been considered.”

Dozens of investigations have been launched by Italian prosecutors against NGOs in recent years, the majority of them later dropped.

According to the charities, the accusations come in the context of the “criminalisation of sea rescues” as the Italian government railed against the numbers being rescued and brought to its ports amid a lack of support from other EU states.

The Iuventa was seized at the port of Lampedusa in August 2017 and phones and computers onboard were taken. It later emerged that the crew had been bugged and that informants had been placed on other rescue ships.

In 2018, evidence produced by the Italian authorities, claiming rescuers collaborated with people smugglers, was found wanting by academics at Goldsmiths, University of London. A computerised reconstruction by Forensic Oceanography of the incidents aimed to demonstrate the “Iuventa 10” were just saving lives.

“Our forensic study was aimed at assessing the allegations of the Italian authorities. The results are clear: There is no evidence of collusion between the Iuventa’s crew and smugglers,” said Lorenzo Pezzani, researcher at Goldsmiths.

MSF said: “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.” It estimates its six humanitarian ships helped save more than 81,000 lives at sea. “We hope that humanitarian ships will be fully reaccredited and that, as soon as possible, the still indispensable rescue activity at sea, which Italy once proudly claimed, will recommence.’’

Pia Klemp, a German captain who skippered the Iuventa on two missions in 2017, said. “On one day alone up to 3,800 people on smuggler boats in distress were saved. For the most important actors in this obscene Mediterranean spectacle – the refugees – this question does not arise. So much has been taken from them that they have even lost their fear. What remains is the irrepressible courage of the hopeless and an often fatal crossing of the Mediterranean Sea as their only chance.”