Following the EU’s deal with Turkey over people smuggling, the issue of migrants trying to cross, and quite often drowning in, the Mediterranean has largely disappeared from the British media. There have been no more images like that of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach after the rubber dinghy in which his family were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos capsized in August 2015.
Now, people smugglers and migrants know there is little point in trying to make the crossing from Turkey to Greece because they will only be sent back, in return for the EU taking refugees directly from camps in Turkey. The deal has successfully curtailed the activities of criminal gangs operating in the eastern Mediterranean: in the first six months of this year arrivals in Greece had fallen by 93 per cent compared with a year earlier.
But the problem hasn’t gone away; it has shifted westwards to Italy, where things just go from bad to worse. Last year a record 181,000 migrants arrived there by sea, nearly all from Libya, and this year there are sure to be many more: over 90,000 have so far been ferried across the Mediterranean from near the Libyan coast to Sicily, 300 miles away, according to the latest figures from IOM, the UN migration agency. Earlier this week IOM reported that 2,359 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean already this year, on top of 5,083 deaths last year and 2,777 in 2015.
The EU, which has mismanaged the migrant problem from the start, only sealing the Turkey deal after years of inaction, has washed its hands of the latest explosion of migrant trafficking. It has ignored the Italian government’s increasingly desperate appeals for help.
Italy used to have a pressure valve. Most migrants used the country as a staging post to more prosperous countries in northern Europe. But with France and Austria reneging on the Schengen agreement by reintroducing border checks, they are stuck in Italy, a country with an unemployment rate of 12 per cent and an economy forecast to take another decade just to get back to the size it was in 2007. Worse, the migrant problem is concentrated in the south of Italy, where the economy is weakest and taxpayers most scarce. Many migrants are living in hostels, each at an annual cost of €13,000 to those Italians who do pay tax. Others disappear into the black economy, sleeping rough or living in illegally let and overcrowded flats.
Thanks in part to guilt about their fascist past, Italians are eager not to be racist, yet they are sick of what they see as an illegal migrant invasion and of the complicit role of four unelected Italian prime ministers since the resignation of the last elected one, Silvio Berlusconi, in 2011. According to a recent opinion poll published in the Rome daily Il Messaggero, 67 per cent of Italians want Italy to close its ports to rescue vessels or deport all migrants ferried to Italy, and 61 per cent want a naval blockade of the Libyan coast.
The left lost heavily in Italy’s local elections in June as a result of brewing anger at the migrant crisis. Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa who had won a peace prize from Unesco and been praised by the Pope, finished a humiliating third in her bid for re-election, defeated by a rival from her own Democratic party. She blamed her defeat on local opposition to a crackdown on illegal building, playing down the bigger issue of migrant arrivals.
But Lampedusa, just seven miles long and two miles wide, is 180 miles north of the Libyan coast and has been in the frontline of people trafficking, for which Nicolini showed rather too much tolerance. Italian attitudes are hardening, thanks to obvious and growing evidence that very few of the arriving migrants can honestly be called refugees — unless you widen that definition to include anyone who lives in Africa, on the basis that its standards of living and respect for human rights are universally lower than in western Europe.
The debate about migrant crossings tends to be held in the context of people fleeing from wars in Syria and Libya. Yet according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical arm, of the 46,995 migrant arrivals in Italy in the first four months of this year, only 635 were Syrians and 170 were Libyans. By contrast, 10,000 came from Nigeria, 4,135 from Bangladesh, 3,865 from the Gambia, 3,625 from Pakistan and 3,460 from Senegal. None of these countries can be said to be consumed by civil war, and even if some individuals had reason to claim asylum, international law dictates that they should claim it in the first ‘safe’ country they reach — which in every case would be before crossing the sea to Italy.
What is causing growing Italian anger is the role of charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the transport of migrants across the Mediterranean. The image the charities like to present is that of desperate people putting to sea in any vessel they can lay their hands on because whatever risks they run cannot exceed the dangers of staying in their homelands. Save the Children, for example, declares in heartrending prose on its website, between photos of young children wrapped in foil blankets, that ‘children are fleeing bullets, poverty, persecution and the growing impact of climate change, only to drown in European waters’.
The reality could not be more different. The vast majority of migrants from Libya are young men paying the equivalent of €1,000 each to people smugglers in what they see as a calculated risk to reach a better life in Europe. The business model of the smugglers does not include transporting their customers all the way to Italy, but rather to take them 12 nautical miles to the boundary of Libya’s territorial waters, so they can then be ‘rescued’ and ferried the rest of the way to Europe. The people smugglers are quite open about what they are doing: what can only be described as a Libya-based migrant travel agency has set up a Facebook page offering ‘tickets’ to ‘passengers’ with ‘discounts for group bookings’ on ‘ferries’ — i.e., smuggler boats — complete with phone number. The journey, it says, lasts only ‘three or four hours’ before rescue by an NGO, Italian or EU vessel, which will complete the ferry service to Italy.
Between October 2013 and October 2014 the second leg of the journey was provided by the Italian navy and coastguard in a search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, which brought 190,000 migrants to Italy. But those vessels operated 150 miles north of the Libyan coast near Lampedusa, which itself is 170 miles south of Sicily. This meant migrants had to undertake much of the journey under their own steam. Mare Nostrum encouraged them to take greater risks and thus added to the death toll. The operation was replaced in 2014 when the EU agreed that Europe, not just Italy, should shoulder the search-and-rescue burden. So Operation Triton was launched. Under this, search-and-rescue vessels from across the EU operate up to a line 120 miles north of Libya. However, all charity vessels (now responsible for about a third of rescues) operate right up to the Libyan coast. Among them are the Vos Hestia, a 59-metre former offshore tug operated by Save the Children, the 68-metre MV Aquarius, jointly operated by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the 40-metre Phoenix, owned by MOAS, a charity founded by an American businessman and his Italian wife.
The operators of these vessels are legally obliged to assist those ‘in distress’ at sea if they are in a position to do so. What they are not allowed to do is to operate deliberate and unauthorised search-and-rescue missions within territorial waters, nor to pick people off a boat which is not ‘in distress’ on the pretext of ‘rescuing’ them. Moreover, if they do save people in distress, they are obliged under maritime law to take them to the nearest safe port, which is seldom in Italy.
But these boats are entering Libyan territorial waters. I asked an independent Dutch research institute, Gefira, for evidence. It used marine traffic websites (freely available to the public) which track ships in real time via satellite. It discovered that a dozen NGO vessels entered Libya’s waters, often many times. The Vos Hestia, for example, did so on the 5, 16, 22 and 23 May; the Aquarius on the 2, 5, 16 and 23 May and as recently as 9 July. The Phoenix was tracked there three times, most recently on 10 July.
The NGOs are now under investigation by Sicilian magistrates for possible collusion with people smugglers. Carmelo Zuccaro, the magistrate in charge, told the Turin daily La Stampa in April: ‘We have evidence that there are direct contacts between certain NGOs and people traffickers in Libya.’ He says phone calls have been made from Libya to certain NGOs, lamps have been lit to illuminate the route to these organisations’ boats, and some of these boats have suddenly turned off their locating transponders.
At the time, Save the Children said: ‘The Vos Hestia, which operates in international waters and in coordination with the [Italian] coastguard, has never entered Libyan waters.’ It has since changed its tune. George Graham, Save the Children’s Director of Humanitarian Policy, said: ‘Save the Children operates in international waters, moving closer to territorial waters only if instructed by the Italian coastguard. On a highly exceptional basis, and if deemed necessary to save lives, Save the Children may enter Libyan waters operating under the coordination of the Italian coastguard. We are not a ferry service. We do not communicate with traffickers or people smugglers.’
Marco Bertotto, head of advocacy for MSF Italy, admits: ‘There were three occasions in 2016 when MSF — in critical and urgent cases and with the explicit authorisation of the relevant Libyan and Italian authorities — assisted in rescues 11.5 nautical miles from the coast. Also in 2017, we have entered on a few occasions in Libyan waters, and with the explicit authorisation of relevant authorities.’ A MOAS spokesman said Phoenix entered Libyan waters only when authorised by the Italian coastguard in Rome. Despite repeated calls and emails, the coastguard declined to explain why it issued such authorisations.
These charities, and others operating ships in the Mediterranean, of course
claim to be saving lives. But what they are really doing is colluding — either intentionally or not — in a people-trafficking operation. If charities and NGOs stopped providing a pick-up service a few miles
off Libya, and if Italy started returning
migrants to the North African countries whence they came, the smugglers’ boats would not put to sea.
Those who are dying are the victims of a well--intentioned but thoroughly misguided operation which will come to be seen as great moral stain on Europe.