Blog AnalysisImmigration AsylumMediterranean sea

NGOs complicit in smugglers in the Mediterranean: the file that caused pschitt?

(B2) NGOs would come too close, and in too many numbers, to the Libyan coast. This would facilitate, even encourage, the trafficking of human beings by smugglers. The accusation has been circulating for months in Italy where the controversy has fueled the headlines. Does this correspond to reality? Is there any basis for this accusation, fueled as much by the public authorities as by political leaders? Not so sure according to the elements collected by B2.

Accusations have been piling up for several months

Arrows come from many origins. From the European agency Frontex, which specifically targets young NGOs Proactive Open Arms, which has been involved in the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean since January 2017, and of the European military operation (in his report at the end of 2016, Rear Admiral Credendino mentioned it, read: The presence of NGOs off Libya: a boon effect for traffickers?). From the Sicilian prosecutor in Trapani who would have opened an investigation which would target more members of rescue teams than an NGO in particular. Finally, from the media, to Italian parliamentarians who have conducted hearings in recent months, in particular NGOs present in the Mediterranean (such as Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranean) which are involved in the rescue of thousands of people on boats leaving from the Libyan coast.

... but do not succeed

After hearing from multiple players, both from the Italian coast guard and NGOs, the senators delivered their conclusions on 16 May. They make some recommendations, partly rejected by the NGOs. But these come out rather cleansed of the evils of which they are accused.


It all started with statements by Frontex in December, on the basis of a report on possible collusion between NGOs and smugglers ("smugglers")." With, in passing, a political exploitation of the situation ” denounces Tommasi Fabbri when questioned by B2. For the head of operations of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Italy, on board the boat Caution Since the start of the year, while Frontex has maintained that the NGOs, being too present, encourage smugglers, it reaffirms that this is a " superficial analysis that does not take into account the factors that push people to flee Libya. All this complexity boils down to a simplistic analysis that makes it possible to blame the NGOs and deflect other reflections. This situation is depressing because it distracts from the real problem which remains that there is no reflection on the means of creating legal access routes to Europe for people fleeing Libya.

Call for air?

Rescue ships would be too present, at the limit of Libyan waters and this would encourage smugglers to embark migrants on makeshift rafts, without even needing to call? Shipwrecks are most numerous near the coast, say the NGOs. According to the ship's captain Liardo, heard by the Italian senators, the presence of NGOs exists and has a significant but certainly not decisive impact to explain on its own the ever-increasing number of passengers. The end of the mission Mare Nostrum in October 2014 and, then, the terrible shipwreck of April 2015, were at the origin of the increasingly significant intervention of NGOs to save migrants in the Mediterranean. In other words to compensate for the shortcomings of the institutions, as denounced by the associations, SOS Méditerranée or MSF.

More boats

What is true is that the number of NGOs patrolling to rescue migrants has increased. But not all year round. SOS Méditerranée, which made its first operation on February 28, 2016, from Lampedusa, has not stopped since. It was the only boat in the area to patrol even the winter months because the Aquarius boat was adapted for this. " We know where to go to save lives, as Mare Nostrum did between 2013 and 2014, helping to rescue more than 150 people at the time “, explains to B2 Sophie Beau, co-founder of SOS Méditerranée.


During hearings in the Italian Senate, the general commander of the Coast Guard, Admiral Inspector Vincenzo Melone, denies the rumor that the NGOs have deactivated certain equipment such as the transponder. He also recalled that a ship must, according to the law of the sea, provide assistance if it becomes aware of a dangerous situation. All rescue operations are coordinated by the IMRCC (the Italian sea rescue coordination centre), as confirmed by Sophie Beau: “ We patrol in the same area and we intervene on a report from the Italian coordination. We make a first location because the boat could drift in the meantime. Especially when we receive several reports at the same time. Sometimes we do not find a boat, there are probably many disappearances that are not counted ". It is also the IMRCC which indicates the port of disembarkation of the survivors.

Police on board?

The NGOs are not there to fight against this trafficking and do not participate directly in the investigations which would allow them to be dismantled. It is in a way the reproach of the prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro. Hence the idea taken up by the Italian senators to place police officers on board. This raises a number of legal issues. Only the German NGO Sea Eye did not declare itself totally opposed to the idea. Tommaso Fabbri recalls the duty of " neutrality, impartiality and independence from MSF, which prevents him from being able to accept the presence of a police officer on board a rescue ship.

Financing under the magnifying glass?

Italian senators also put forward the idea of ​​asking NGOs for more transparency in their funding. Knowing that it is indeed large sums that are needed. About 11.000 euros per day for the Aquarius of SOS Méditerranée, which only has barely 1% of public funds in its budget.

Additional information

Rescues at sea were more done by observation than following a call, as was the case in 2015 and already much less in 2016. According to Admiral Melone, 55% of rescues were from observation in 2016, knowing that almost a third of these sightings are due to NGO vessels. Also according to this admiral, if ordinary telephone calls (as opposed to satellites) have increased in the last two months (in April and May 2017), it is because they were made more near the coast.

Good pressure?

At the very least, the senators believe that the pressure put on NGOs may have made them collaborate more, like MOAS which would have provided images captured by its drone in the investigation into the murder of a migrant. by a smuggler.

A myopic Europe?

Accusing Europe of being myopic in the way she looks at and analyzes the situation “, Tommaso Fabbri repeats his weariness: “ we are tired of rehearsing and having to defend ourselves but we continue our action, we are at sea, and we are saving people. This is not the solution, but Europe and its Member States are not taking their responsibilities ". He denounces, like Sophie Beau, the signing of the cooperation agreement between Italy and Libya, in February 2017, which is only a continuation according to him " of the outsourcing of the management of our borders: We are moving the problem to Libya. This allows you to no longer see it ". The two humanitarians say to themselves “ very concerned about the situation of people currently in Libya ". And determined to continue to work, in coordination as we have done until today with the Coast Guard, NGOs and the Italian Center for the Coordination of Rescues at Sea, based in Rome ».

Malta cooperates little, Egypt and Tunisia turn a blind eye

By the way, the senators did not fail to send new arrows. Against the Malta relief coordination centre, deemed uncooperative and inactive. Just like Egypt and Tunisia which would revolve around the Hamburg Convention (the United Nations resolution on the transport of goods at sea, Egypt not having ratified it). If on this side, no avenue for improvement has been mentioned, on the other hand, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs would endeavor to resolve the problem of overlapping areas of responsibility between the Italians and Malta, around the island of Lampedusa.

Still more deaths

In a recent statement (June 17), the NGO Doctors Without Borders, recalls that crossing the Mediterranean was even more deadly in 2016 for migrants than in 2015. At least 5.000 men, women and children died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2016, up from nearly 2800 in 2015 " indicates the NGO, which emphasizes above all, that " these data are only estimates, since it is very difficult to trace the entire trajectory and that many bodies are never recovered ».

A real far westr at sea

Some NGOs have admitted having intervened in Libyan territorial waters. SOS Méditerranée refuses. Because it's dangerous. " The first danger comes from the coast guards of which we do not really know who they are “says Sophie Beau who compares the situation to” a real far west at sea “. Recently, MSF and SOS Méditerranée directly accused the Libyan coast guard of putting lives at risk during a rescue in the Mediterranean. It was May 23. The coastguards approached very close, between two interventions, threatened the passengers of a dinghy, sowing panic, many jumped into the water, " fortunately we had distributed life jackets, because we had to go and do another intervention, but it could have been dramatic “says Sophie Beau.

For NGOs, the European Union should question its support, the aid of 90 million euros, granted to the Libyan coast guard.

(Emmanuelle Stoesser)

Download a summary of investigation report of the Italian Senate and the documents annexed

NB: Médecins Sans Frontières, operates in the Mediterranean with two ships, Caution, flying the Italian flag and in collaboration with SOS Méditerranée, on boardAquarius. SOS Méditerranée is a French organization founded in 2015, which charters the ship Aquarius, flying the flag of Gibraltar, equipped with a clinic for first aid.

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