A MSF boat off the coast of Libya. Photo: PA

Europe's new anti-migrant strategy? Blame the rescuers

Across Europe's seas, anti-immigrant strategies have found a new target: the rescuers
March 20, 2018

It was the Ark Explorer’s low “freeboard,” the distance between the ship’s deck and the waterline, that saved the rusted, ageing trawler from the wrecker’s yard. The Ark’s low clearance had helped fishermen haul netfuls of cod and herring out of the freezing North Sea for half a century. It also looked about right for fishing refugees out of the Mediterranean.

In May 2016, the Dutch-flagged 158-tonner was bought by a collective of German political activists called Jugend Rettet (“Youth Rescue”), who wanted to save lives and protest Europe’s migration policies in the Central Mediterranean. Refitted and rechristened the Iuventa, the old trawler and its young crew went on to rescue more than 14,000 people over the following 14 months, taking most of them ashore in Italy.

Together with professional search and rescue operatives and doctors from charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the mounting death toll in the Mediterranean has drawn a new generation of activists away from anti-globalisation protests and on to the high seas. Among them was Julian Koeberer, a bearded, well-mannered film student from Frankfurt, who set off to shoot a film about refugees for a film school diploma and found himself drawn to volunteer on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015.

The diploma remains unfinished. Koeberer and the rest of the Iuventa crew criss-crossed the Mediterranean for a year, earning a reputation as the hardest-charging, biggest risk-takers among the 13-boat flotilla operated by different NGOs. The Iuventa was renowned for radical politics and a willingness to load as many refugees as it could fit on deck.

But a call in July 2017 from Rome’s Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), which directs most, if not all, high seas rescues off Libya, marked the beginning of the end. The Rome MRCC asked the Iuventa to move towards co-ordinates in international waters off the coast of Libya, where it said a small dinghy required assistance. By the time it reached the scene an Italian coastguard vessel had already intercepted the dinghy and the two Syrians aboard had been rescued. The Italians asked the Iuventa to transport the Syrians towards Italy.

In the event of a major shipwreck, the coastguard vessel was a larger and more important asset in the search and rescue zone, so it made sense for the Iuventa to take the Syrians north. The crew thought that they would only have to travel a few nautical miles and pass them on to another vessel, before returning as quickly as possible to southern waters to continue their work. But every northbound ship they contacted mysteriously declined to take the rescued men and the Iuventa found itself approaching the island of Lampedusa. They tarried just outside the 12-mile line that marks Italian territorial waters and asked authorities to send a launch to collect the Syrians.

Instead, the instruction came back telling them to come into port. But as soon as they entered territorial waters at around midnight, their ship was met by five Italian vessels—including the same coastguard craft that had handed over the Syrians in the first place, but had claimed to be too busy to head north. It was a trap.

“To be honest neither me or anyone else in the crew suspected we were going to be seized,” said Koeberer. “We found the way we were brought into port very strange but we thought that this would be like the other three times that Iuventa was brought into port in Lampedusa.”

They were wrong. The 13-member crew were taken onshore for questioning, while police searched their ship with a warrant signed by a judge the previous day. The warrant indicated the police were searching for a gun. No firearms were found and the closest thing to a violation turned up during the search was some incorrectly stowed medicines. Nonetheless, the Iuventa was impounded. After the crew were able to get a lawyer, the reason they had been arrested became clear. A crew of humanitarians who had spent more than a year on the Mediterranean rescuing migrants was handed a 150-page indictment, which accused them of colluding with people smugglers.

Much of the charge sheet focuses on accusations that smugglers met with the Iuventa and were seen to drop off migrants and then leave again. The crew deny the claims and have found photographs from the dates mentioned which show that, far from being on its own at a high seas meeting point, the Iuventa was at the same location as a European Union naval vessel, an Italian helicopter and other rescue boats.

In the days that followed, the crew discovered that they had been the subjects of a far-reaching investigation, one that deployed undercover informants, covert surveillance and multiple law enforcement agencies, including justice officials associated with anti-mafia campaigns. They found out that the bridge of their trawler had been bugged since May, when listening devices had been planted by Italian police under the guise of an inspection in Lampedusa.

Far from establishing collusion, the worst thing the bridge mic caught was one Iuventa crew member talking about a sticker with a slogan against the maritime authorities, which read “Fuck the MRCC.”

Italy’s intelligence services had informants on another NGO rescue boat, the Vos Hestia, chartered by the UK-based charity Save the Children. Instead of targeting the smuggling kingpins, Italian prosecutors and the intelligence services—at times in league with far-right politicians and activists—had turned on the life-saving NGOs. How, and why, had this happened?


Enter the NGO armada

The first three months of 2017 will be remembered as the high point of an extraordinary period during which NGOs like Youth Rescue took the lead in saving the lives of migrants in the central Mediterranean. Of the nearly 180,000 people rescued between north Africa and Europe during 2016, more than a quarter were saved by NGOs: 10,000 more than either the Italian navy or coastguard. At the peak, nine humanitarian groups were operating more than a dozen search and rescue vessels of varying sizes, plus two spotter planes.

The NGOs had stepped into the breach after Italy abandoned Mare Nostrum, the only state-led rescue operation in the Mediterranean in 2014, due to a lack of financial support from its European allies. Mare Nostrum was replaced in time with the EU-led Operations Triton and Sophia, both of which were dedicated to security and counter-smuggling rather than rescue.

The prominence of the NGOs evoked public sympathy to begin with. But a backlash quickly followed as unease over immigration came to dominate Italian politics—ultimately having a major influence on the election in early March.

At the heart of the campaign to attack the NGOs was a controversial Dutch think tank, the Gefira Foundation, which espouses a far-right “identitarian” philosophy. It alleged that rescue NGOs were in actual collusion with Libyan smugglers. In December 2016, it claimed to have uncovered unspecified proof of illegal activity by what it called the “NGO armada.” Gefira also understood that posing the right question could be more effective than presenting evidence: “They all claim to be on a rescuing mission, but are they?”

The mounting hysteria attracted the far-right group Defend Europe, which says the continent is threatened with Islamification. Defend Europe raised enough money to charter its own boat to hamper rescue operations. Its mission amounted to little more than attaching some stickers on the hull of one NGO rescue craft.

But the grandstanding attracted former Daily Mail writer Katie Hopkins, who met the crew and praised them as “young people… shining a light on NGO people traffickers.” The campaign proved effective, seeping into the mainstream, fanned by right-wing politicians and activists. Carmelo Zuccaro, a prosecutor in the Sicilian port city of Catania, announced a task force to investigate the rescuers in February 2017. His questions echoed Gefira: “Do these NGOs all have the same motivations? And who is financing them?” he asked.

One month later Luca Donadel, an Italian student, posted an eight-minute video on Facebook accusing the NGOs of profiting from the rescue of migrants at sea. Donadel’s “The truth about migrants” included falsified information about how close to the Libyan shore some rescue boats had sailed. It was widely viewed and picked up unquestioningly by newspapers and broadcasters in Italy. The unsubstantiated claims were amplified by leaders of the two leading opposition parties that cleaned up in March’s election: the populist 5-Star Movement and the hard-right Northern League, who labelled the NGOs as “sea taxis” for migrants.

In July, prior to the seizure of the Iuventa, the pressure on the rescue boats was stepped up by Italy’s announcement of a new code of conduct to regulate their actions. The code had begun as a dry technical exercise by Italy’s coastguard to establish common practices for NGO vessels but it quickly became political when it was taken over by Marco Minniti, the ambitious interior minister. A social democrat in the Partito Democratico (PD), Minniti is typical of migration hawks on the centre left—such as former French prime minister Manuel Valls—who argue that nativist posturing is necessary to see off more chauvinist populists.

Minniti’s new version of the code contained controversial requirements such as proscribing the use of phones and flares and banning the transfer of rescued people to other ships to be taken to Italy, methods which were central to NGO rescue practices. MSF, who operated its own rescue ship, warned that the code “would mean less time in the rescue zone” and “more drownings.” Minniti, who was previously the political head of Italy’s intelligence services, threatened to close Italy’s ports to rescue ships who did not sign.

The hijacking of the code by the interior ministry triggered an angry row between Minniti and Italy’s more cautious transport minister, Graziano Delrio, to whom the coastguard reports. “We are talking about rescue at sea, which is governed by international law, not by the politics of migration control,” Delrio told Italy’s Repubblica newspaper.

Roughly half of the NGOs signed the code but its real importance, according to Pierluigi Musarò, a professor and an expert on borders and migration with the University of Bologna, was the way it enabled the government to “legitimise” suspicion of the humanitarians. “For five months all we saw were images of collusion and you cannot compare the power over the media that political parties and the government have with the power of the NGOs.”

In 2014, just 3 per cent of Italians considered immigration a major concern. By the time Italy went to the polls in March, that figure had climbed above one third.

The fall of Gaddafi in 2011 and the country’s descent into chaos gradually saw Libya once again emerge as the main departure point for Europe. In 2013 40,000 people made the crossing, fuelled in part by African migrants escaping the civil war in Libya. By 2014 the flows into Italy from Libya passed 170,000.

Traffic through the route varies according to the crises elsewhere and includes Nigerian women trafficked out of poverty into Europe’s sex trade; Eritreans fleeing perpetual national service at home; Somalis fleeing war; and West Africans who in the past might have migrated through legal channels that are now closed.

Italy’s southern most island, Lampedusa, is the closest European territory to Libya—only 180 miles away—something which its former ruler Muammar Gaddafi was only too aware of. As far back as 2008 the Tripoli regime allowed some 40,000 migrants to reach Lampedusa, in a flow that was only halted when Italy agreed an expensive deal with Libya’s leader.

Italy’s response to the influx began generously but soon soured when Rome realised that its European partners were happy to treat the Central Mediterranean route as an Italian problem. During the humanitarian days of Mare Nostrum, Italy’s navy were lionised as lifesavers in films on national television. As the flows of people got larger and the EU help failed to materialise, attitudes hardened and nativist voices in the media and politics shouted down their humanitarian counterparts.

Gradually the government strategy returned to the Gaddafi-era imprint: boats and funding for a Libyan coastguard whose main job was to intercept boats before they could reach international rescuers and by extension Italy. After initially standing up to the Minniti agenda, Rome’s MRCC recently began to order the remaining NGO missions to stand aside and allow the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant boats and return them to Libya.

The place of militias

The EU’s overwhelming political priority of reducing sea crossings from north Africa has pushed it into an ever closer relationship with the loose-knit collection of militias that make up the Libyan coastguard. The UN arms embargo on Libya has prevented the EU directly supplying armed patrol boats to the Libyans, so the focus has been on training—but the mission has been far from straightforward.

Training began in October 2016 with Libyans divided between the Italian vessel San Giorgio and the Dutch ship Rotterdam. Among the nine translators hired for the mission was Rabhi Bouallegue, a Tunisian now living in Palermo. He said trainees told him of routine collusion between the coastguard and smuggling gangs. The translator said one member of the Libyan team aboard the Rotterdam requested asylum from the Dutch in return for naming a smuggling kingpin who was also in effective control of the coastguard in the Libyan port city of Sabratha. (EU naval mission officials have repeatedly declined to comment on the claim.) The Libyans also complained to him that they had not been paid by their government for eight months.

After the first phase, the Libyans returned home briefly before being collected for more training by the San Giorgio from the Libyan port of Misrata in early December 2016. The amphibious transport ship was delayed for several days as the trainees went on strike; the personnel were under pressure from their families to demand bonuses equivalent to the bribes they previously received from smugglers.

A lot rests on the distinction between smugglers and coastguards. But it simply does not exist in the case of Abdurahman al-Milad. The 29-year-old head of the coastguard in the Libyan port city of Zawiya was first identified as the area’s main smuggler by Italian investigative reporter Nancy Porsia. Despite being named in the UN panel of experts report in June for involvement in smuggling activities and for firing on migrant and charity-operated boats, he continues to make a show of his wealth.

On his Facebook page he posted photographs of a high-end, black and red powerboat, mounted with four 250-horsepower engines, bearing the legend “Baltic Pirates” on the side. He also shows off an invitation for a training course hosted by the Swiss government and the UN Migration Agency, billed as “promoting life-saving in maritime operations by the Libyan coastguard.”

Last year ended with a one-third reduction in the number of sea crossings in the Central Mediterranean that was trumpeted in much of the EU as a success. But this owed more to a series of murky deals between Italy and armed groups with smuggling links, as local sources in Libya’s main smuggling ports have confirmed. The tactic has led to renewed fighting among rival groups hoping to profit from Europe’s willingness to pay to stop migrants crossing.

The impact of the smear campaign that fed the mood in which the Iuventa was seized has also led to a sharp drop in public donations to the NGOs. Long-trusted charities like MSF have seen public donations drop by as much as 20 per cent in 2017 and all but a handful have withdrawn. Avowedly non-political groups like the Malta Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) have simply ceased operations, citing threats and reputational damage. Save the Children ended its operations, while MSF ended its charter of a vessel and now limits itself to providing a medical team aboard the French mission, SOS Mediteranee.

Today, the Iuventa is quietly rusting into the dock at Trapani, the Sicilian port where it has been impounded. Its future is the subject of a legal case that could establish a dangerous precedent for non-governmental missions. An appeal hearing is due in April and the activists have been told that the vessel is being held not because a crime has willingly been committed, but as a preventative measure against possible future crimes.

The outlines of a deliberate plan to “drain the Mediterranean” of non-governmental actors are now clearly visible. The fate of the Iuventa is not about 13 left-wing activists getting their boat back. It is about Italy establishing jurisdiction over all actions taken in international waters that result in illegal entry into Italian territory. It would make smugglers out of rescuers and mean any rescue boat that successfully prevents people from drowning could be seized.

If Italy succeeds in court it will be another sign of the increasing authority of interior ministries around the EU, who now direct the bloc’s foreign policy. For those who want to use international waters to challenge the increasingly inward-looking, xenophobic tide of Europe’s politics, it will be a critical defeat. The arrival of spring will bring an increase in the number of refugees and migrants attempting the crossing, while those who would rescue them face challenges from governments and public scepticism fuelled by a smear campaign. The odds of survival for those wanting to start a new life in Europe will be even longer.