Refugee Rescue’ NGOs ‘Outraged’ as Germany, Austria Say They Work with Mediterranean Human Traffickers

Refugee Rescue’ NGOs ‘Outraged’ as Germany, Austria Say They Work with Mediterranean Human Traffickers
  • Germany and Austria’s Interior Ministers have accused ‘refugee rescue’ NGOs of contributing to human trafficking through the Mediterranean.
  • Italy had already voiced such accusations as it has reached a ‘saturation point’ with the number of migrants it can accept.
  • Quarter of all migrants found in the Mediterranean in 2016 were rescued by vessels run by NGOs.
  • EU border agency Frontex has said the presence of the NGOs helps create a ‘pull effect’.
  • NGOs have been outraged at the accusations against them, arguing they are helping save lives.
  • Academic report says number of migrants on the Mediterranean route had started to rise before the NGO vessels became more numerous.

Private NGOs providing “rescue services” to Middle Eastern and African migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy have been “outraged” at accusations by the Interior Ministers of Germany and Austria, as well as officials from Italy, that they are collaborating with human traffickers.

At the beginning of July, Italy raised alarm that the current scale of illegal immigrants’ arrivals was unsustainable and that it could even close its ports and impound aid NGOs’ rescue ships.

While the rescue efforts for vessels carrying illegal immigrants are mostly led by the Italian coastguard, there are many rescue vessels run by non-profit groups, sailing under the flags of other nations including EU countries like Germany and Malta.

An Italian government source said the idea of blocking humanitarian ships flying foreign flags from returning to Italian ports had been discussed, as Italy had reached saturation point.

The situation in Italy led Austria to declare that it was going to send the army to block migrants from crossing its border with Italy.

Almost 85,000 illegal immigrants landed in Italy in the first half of 2017, a 20%  increase year-on-year. Counting migrants who made it to other EU countries through the Mediterranean, their total number climbed to 101,000.

Some 2,247 illegal immigrants have died or are missing in the Mediterranean as they have been trying to make the journey from Libya to Italy. The shortest crossing from Libya to Italy is only about 460 km (290 miles).

Italy has seen more than 500,000 migrants arrive by boat since 2014. Libya has been in shambles since its long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled, and killed by a mob in October 2011.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been heavily criticized at home and abroad for declaring in 2015 what in essence has been an open-door policy for migrants from the Middle East claiming to be refugees from the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Over 1 million migrants claiming to be refugees made it to Germany and other EU countries such as Sweden in 2015, overwhelming the European Union’s Schengen Area system – stipulating free movement across most European borders.

Merkel has just rejected calls to cap the number of migrants arriving to Germany on the pretext of seeking refugee status.

As the bulk of the 2015 wave of refugees and illegal immigrants arrived in Europe via the Turkey – Balkans – Central European route, in March 2016, the EU made a deal with Turkey under which the latter agreed to prevent Middle Eastern migrants on its territory from reaching the EU.

Rescuers help migrants arriving at the port of Porto Empedocle, Agrigento province, in Sicily island, south Italy, 13 July 2017. Reports state a group of 386 migrants coming above all from Libya and Morocco landed on 13 July in Sicily island, coming onboard the NGO ship ‘Open Arms’ flying Spanish flag. Ten of the women arrived are pregnant, there are also 71 minors.

‘Human Trafficking Collaborators’

Germany and Austria’s Interior Ministers have recently accused private initiatives to save refugees in the Mediterranean of intentionally working with people smugglers, German public media Deutsche Welle reported.

Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka has called for legal “punishments” for NGO workers who pick migrants in danger of drowning out of the Mediterranean.

“We have to stop so-called helpers from entering Libyan waters and directly taking refugees from human traffickers,” Sobotka told Germany’s Bild newspaper.

“It’s crucial that self-appointed emergency sea rescuers no longer cooperate with the [people smuggling] rings,” he added.

Germany’s conservative Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has also made similar allegations in a separate newspaper interview.

He cited Italian accusations that NGO rescue boats concealed their transponder positions from coast guards and turned on their lights to give boatloads of refugees a “goal.”

It is reminded that the accusation NGO rescue ships help encourage illegal immigrants to try to cross the Mediterranean in unsafe conditions has been voiced before but for the first time it comes from such senior government officials of EU countries.

Last week, Italy drew up a code of conduct for NGO sea rescuers implying that they encourage human traffickers, regardless of whether that is done intentionally or now.

The EU has recently decided to restrict the sale to Libya of rubber boats usually used for migrant crossing.

‘Pull Effect’

According to data from the Italian Defense Ministry the share of migrants rescued at sea by NGOs went from 0.87% in 2014 to 26.23% of all who crossed the Mediterranean.

Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Center told DW that there are currently “no cases with an NGO involvement at the core of the investigation.”

However, spokesman Jan Op Gen Oorth said the possibility of NGOs creating conditions deemed feasible by human traffickers could not be ruled out.

“We cannot exclude that organized crime gangs involved in migrant smuggling assume that migrants will be picked up by NGOs very close to the shore, rather than sail all the way to Italy and that the migrant smugglers take advantage of this,” the spokesman said.

The EU border control agency Frontex has advanced the idea that the presence of NGO rescuers has created a “pull effect” encouraging would-be migrants to try their luck and are thus indirectly abetting people smugglers.


The NGOs in question were outraged at the accusations of human trafficking by the Interior Ministers of Austria and Germany.

In an email, the German organization Sea Watch called the accusations part of a “campaign of defamation,” Deutsche Welle reported.

“We don’t want to let ourselves get turned into a plaything for European interior and foreign ministers, whose statements repeatedly make for headlines about ocean rescues and human traffickers,” Sea Watch spokeswoman Theresa Leisgang wrote.

“More NGO boats means fewer dead – that’s all there is to it,” she declared.

Doctors Without Borders also said in a statement that there was not “a shred of evidence” supporting de Maiziere and Sobotka’s claims.

Anti-human trafficking groups like La Strada in the Netherlands, which is not involved in sea rescues, say that they see no direct connection between the number of rescue boats and people risking their lives to reach Europe.

“There are far more factors at work,” La Strada International Coordinator Suzanne Hoff told DW.

“People leave because of what’s going on in their countries of origin,” she argued.

‘Toxic Narrative’

That view is supported by recent academic research such as a study published last month by Goldsmiths College entitled “Blaming the Rescuers“, which disputes the idea of a pull effect and the notion that rescuers are inadvertently making crossings more dangerous. The report says that belief has created a “toxic narrative” discrediting NGO search and rescue missions.

The study acknowledged that the number and danger of Mediterranean crossings, as well as the number of deaths and mortality rate, increased from 2015 to 2016, but finds that none of these trends was causally related to the activities of NGO missions.

Statistics show that attempted crossings from northern Africa were on the rise before the increase in NGO activities.

The report argues that crossings had already been getting more dangerous because of a change in the human traffickers’ strategy in response to governmental anti-smuggling efforts and deteriorating conditions in Libya – although NGO activities may have encouraged smugglers to consolidate those tactics.

“NGOs were not the cause of increased crossings and shifting smugglers’ tactics, but were rather a fundamental civilian response to a dire situation that was not of their making,” the report concluded.

The Goldsmiths report takes European leaders to task for failing to address the conditions in northern Africa that cause people to migrate and urges those people be given legal avenues for migration.

The “refugee rescue” NGOs have also been arguing in favor of more legal paths for immigration.

“We think that if you give people more rights, more information and more chances to legally migrate, then you actually prevent human trafficking,” said Hoff.

“The human trafficking problem starts on land. When the migrants are at sea, it’s already too late,” UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe.

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