Under attack for saving lives

Credit: Jason Florio/MOAS

Search and Rescue organisations patrolling the Libyan coasts have saved thousands of lives that European border policies left to perish.

Despite their life-saving work, the employees and volunteers of these NGOs are routinely accused of colluding with traffickers and helping immigrants to illegally enter Europe.

They have been called “taxis of the sea” and, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, blamed for causing more arrivals and more deaths.

Since late 2016, non-governmental organisations involved in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the sea off the Libyian coast have come under increasing attack in Italy. Politicians, media and far-right groups have led a delegitimisation campaign against them, and Italian prosecutors have even opened fact-finding inquiries into their operations. Migrant rights defenders have persisted in the face of growing social and legal persecution.

In February 2017, Frontex, the EU Border Agency, claimed SAR NGOs constitute a “pull-factor” and that more migrants were attempting to cross the sea because they knew someone was going to rescue them. In this way, the organisations were “unintentionally helping criminals”.

Italian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro — who has launched an official inquiry — has gone even further, suggesting NGOs were operating for their own profits and they were colluding with smugglers. Even though Zuccaro himself admitted he had no proof to support his claims, his declarations had a snowball effect. Left-wing and right-wing publications alike published articles supporting his thesis and casting doubts over the NGOs. Moreover, the Italian Parliament and the Ministry of Defence both had hearings about SAR operations in the Med and opened their own fact-finding inquiries.

Many of the accusations against the NGOs have already proven to be false, but the damage to their reputation will have a long-lasting impact.

The idea that activists, who fight for refugees’ rights to movement and life, are criminals will be hard to eradicate from the public discourse.

In the foreword of the report “Blaming the Rescuers”, published by Forensic Oceanography, François Crépeau, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, writes:

“Blaming the patient for the illness or the victim for the crime is a common response in our societies: we need to identify a culprit for our social ills. Especially in the current populist atmosphere, scapegoating is a temptation for the authorities, as they try to deflect blame and want to fuel the mistaken assumptions of their electorate”.

As shown by the scientific analysis of the report, it is clear that the increasing number of arrivals is not linked with the growing presence of NGOs at sea. In 2016, more than 4580 people died in the Mediterranean, while trying to reach Europe. Without the precious work of migrant rights defenders working for SAR NGOs, this number would have been much higher.

While life-saving NGOs are under attack, EU State members and institutions are increasingly relying on cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard, despite its poor human rights record. As the report “Blaming the Rescuers” says:

“Considering the condition of migrants in Libya today, preventing migrants from departing from Libyan territory amounts to complicity with arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, forced labour and trafficking. These attacks against SAR NGOs participate in a wider attempt to criminalise solidarity towards migrants and refugees, which endangers the possibility of EU citizens standing in solidarity and exercising civilian oversight at the EU’s frontiers to contest their deadly effects”.

On World Refugee Day, Front Line Defenders expresses solidarity with all refugees across the world who have been forced to flee their countries, and honours the struggle of those who work to protect their rights.