What to do about the charities who send boats to bring asylum seekers to the Italian coast? Save the Children and seven others have been doing this for some time now, to the alarm of the Italian government. It suspects that some NGOs are colluding with the people-traffickers, and undermining attempts by the government to shut down a business that has already led to 2,200 deaths this year alone. Nicholas Farrell looked at this in a recent cover story for The Spectator. The NGOs say they are saving lives – which is of course true. But the question is whether, by helping the people traffickers in the final leg of the journey, they are oiling the wheels of a new and evil industry in a way that means more, not fewer, deaths.
There’s no suggestion that the NGOs are taking backhanders from the people-traffickers, simply that the two are acting in concert to circumvent Italian border control. In some cases, they pride themselves in defying the government: a German outfit named Jugend Rettet, says it has rescued 6,530 people since it started out last summer and seeks to “put pressure on state actors to enforce the fundamental right to life and security even in the Mediterranean.” In so doing, might they be leading to more deaths in the Mediterranean?
It’s an awful conundrum, but one the Italians have been dealing with for years now. The frustration, there, is that the charity boats are operating outside democratic control and taking matters into their own hands: the coastguard estimates that a third of asylum seekers who land in Italy are landed by NGOs. And when the Italian government asked the NGO rescue boat operators to sign a code of conduct (including taking a policeman on board to ensure no laws are being broken), Save the Children agreed, but three of the eight refused – including Jugend Rettet. Since then, things have escalated. The Iuventa, which is run by Jugend Rettet, has been seized by Italian coastguards. The local prosecutor, Ambrogio Cartosio, says he has “evidence of encounters between traffickers, who escorted illegal immigrants to the Iuventa, and members of the boat's crew.”
With the Aegean migrant route closed after the EU’s deal with Turkey, crossings to Italy are up by a third so far this year – as you might expect, the body count of those who died trying to make the crossing is up by a similar amount. The Italian public have had enough. The former Mayor of Lampedusa, who won a UNESCO prize for her support of migrants, has been booted out and replaced by someone who takes a harder line. But if the NGOs don’t recognise government authority – indeed, pride themselves in opposition to “state actors” – then what to do? The Italian government has started to give its answer.