Premeditated illegal disposal of on-board waste with the aim of financially benefiting from it as part of a “criminal operation”: these are the pressed charges by the Prosecutor of Catania (Italy) following the conclusion of its investigation against Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the medical partner of SOS MEDITERRANEE, on 20 November. The methods used during this investigation, such as tapping phones and intercepting emails, are otherwise commonly used in anti-mafia or anti-terrorism operations. The accusation spread across the media, supported by allegedly incriminating images published by the judiciary. The claim was that the clothing and food of the rescued people were contaminated with pathogens and must have been disposed as hazardous waste.
Since first launching its search and rescue operations, the port authorities responsible for waste disposal have never made any allegations of this kind against the Aquarius. Now, the public prosecution has requested the Italian accounts of our medical partner MSF to be frozen and the Aquarius to be seized as a precautionary measure. This is another step – following the politically motivated withdrawal of the flag – in a political, regulatory and legal campaign that targets the weakest and all those who have been extending their help, trying to brandmark them as criminals.
The search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean started following calls for action by the European civil society and politicians in October 2013, following the Lampedusa tragedy during which an overloaded, unseaworthy boat sunk and 360 people died. The nationwide mourning following the disaster gave birth to the Italian government led operation Mare Nostrum, which saved thousands of lives. The lack of European solidarity with the Italians finally led to the cessation of the operation only a year later. In response, civil society stepped in to continue these disrupted efforts and save as many lives as possible – always in compliance with the applicable rules of international maritime law that have existed for decades. Based on the age-old tradition of solidarity amongst seafarers, “the master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance” (Chapter V, Rule 33 of the Annex to the SOLAS Convention)* .
Thanks to the cooperation between civilian, military and state actors, hundreds of thousands of people have been saved from certain death. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) carried out 30 to 40% of all rescue operations conducted between 2016 and June 2018 – the remaining operations were carried out by the Italian Coast Guard, European military vessels and merchant ships** . Despite all efforts, people continued to die at sea: between 2014 and 2018 almost 18,000 people reportedly drowned, as boats in distress are overcrowded and unseaworthy, rescue operations are very complex, assets are missing and the area to be searched is enormous.
In the meantime, in spite of the clear need for more NGO support in SAR operations, more and more NGOs came under suspicion while distrust was growing. Until June 2018 the rescued were brought to Italy. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome was de facto responsible for the search and rescue zone off Libya, and the Italian authorities classified the Italian ports as the nearest safe ports under international maritime law. However, a lack of solidarity from the rest of Europe regarding the care of the survivors after their arrival in Italy, made frustrations rise. Misleading and slanderous allegations were made: the NGOs were supposedly cooperating with the smugglers or were even called “unscrupulous traffickers”. They had “secret intentions” and constituted a “pull-factor”. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which also carried out rescue missions and cooperated with them at sea without any difficulty, also used such statements against NGOs. Whilst the civilian rescuers were confronted with severely injured people, extreme human vulnerability and terrible stories about the living conditions of migrants in Libya, they were simultaneously being demonized. Meanwhile, other actors involved in rescues were not under attack.
In view of the ever more negative perception of the NGOs’ work, in the spring of 2017, the Italian Senate examined and ultimately rejected all allegations. Nevertheless, this was not the end: as from August 2017 the accusatory discourse transformed into official civil and criminal investigations launched against search and rescue NGOs for allegedly “aiding illegal immigration”. The ships Iuventa, Open Arms, Golfo Azzurro and Vos Hestia were seized or investigated by the authorities, and some of their crew members were held in contempt. In August 2017, NGOs were forced to sign a “Code of Conduct”, a document that outlines the principles of sea rescue, step-by-step, even though these have been governed and codified by international agreements for decades. In 2018, Italy ultimately closed its ports and no longer let survivors ashore. Lifeline got held in Malta, while Sea-Eye, Seafuchs and Sea-Watch 3 were not allowed to leave the port for several months, due to administrative reasons.
In the summer of 2018, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), whose task is, as its name implies, to advise Member States on fundamental rights, rang the alarm***. The vast majority of administrative and judicial proceedings were terminated due to lack of evidence or ended in acquittals. At the same time, systematically applied pressure reduced resources available for search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, causing the death toll to skyrocket in 2018. But the last ambulances of the sea are still being targeted.
The fact that civil society actors in the Mediterranean continue to be subjected to harsh attacks leaves no room for doubt as to the underlying motivations: rescue workers, doctors and disruptive witnesses are being intimidated and rescue operations at sea are being stopped at all cost. Overall, it is about discrediting the NGOs in the eyes of civil society – even though they are themselves part of civil society. Those who drowned and will continue to drown, are being silenced, disregarding the age-old principle of “duty to rescue”.
The political, legal and administrative obstacles cost lives. For SOS MEDITERRANEE, a European citizen’s association, this is one more reason to return at sea with a new ship, as soon as possible. The rescuers will continue to do their utmost to help people in distress at sea. It is our legal and moral duty, which should come before any and all other considerations.