Aid groups operating rescue ships in the Mediterranean rejected suspicions raised by an Italian prosecutor that by saving tens of thousands of migrants they are effectively aiding Libya-based people smugglers.
On Tuesday, humanitarian vessels brought in almost 1,200 migrants picked up in previous days to ports in Sicily, while the Golfo Azzurro, an NGO ship, sped towards more boats that had left Libya possibly packed with migrants and refugees.
“If we are not there to save these people and offer a helping hand then they will have no chance to survive,” said Riccardo Gatti, field co-ordinator on the Golfo Azzurro, operated by the NGO Proactiva Open Arms.
The number of migrants rescued from boats off the Libyan coast, where people smugglers operate with impunity, has jumped to more than 23,000 so far this year, 60% more than in the same period last year and some 600 people are estimated to have drowned.
In all, 181,000 migrants reached Italy in 2016 – about half of the total who arrived in the European Union by sea – while 4,581 people are thought to have died trying to reach the country on flimsy, overladen vessels.
Carmelo Zuccaro, chief prosecutor in Catania, formed a task force to investigate whether non-governmental organisations are funded by smugglers. In testimony to parliament last week, Zuccaro said he suspected there were direct ties, but had no proof.
That prompted parliament to open its own fact-finding investigation into the matter on Thursday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro told Reuters he considered the accusations “absurd” because Italy’s Coastguard oversees all rescues.
Giro said accusations were being made by those who think rescuers are a “pull factor”, attracting more migrants to Europe by making the passage easier.
“If a mother is so desperate she puts a child on a boat, you can’t blame it on a ‘pull factor’,” Giro said in an interview.
However, the commander of the European Union’s anti-smuggling operation, Admiral Enrico Credendino, told an Italian newspaper last week NGOs were a pull factor and they used spotlights to signal their position to smugglers.
At the weekend, Paolo Grimoldi of the anti-immigrant Northern League party said NGOs were operating a “taxi service” for migrants.
Sea-Watch, SOS Mediterranee, Doctors without Borders and other NGOs operating in the Mediterranean all denied the accusations.
NGOs started operating boats to help migrants in May last year, completing 26% of all rescues, while Italy’s Coastguard and Navy together tallied more than 40%. Merchant ships, EU border agency Frontex, ships in the EU anti-smuggling mission and other foreign naval vessels picked up the rest.
Zuccaro said NGOs carried out half of the rescues so far this year, suggesting their role was growing.
Italy’s Coastguard co-ordinates all sea rescues from a Rome-based control centre. “The co-ordination with the Italian Coastguard is perfect, we never had problems,” said Gatti.