BY BBC NEWS
An Italian prosecutor says he has evidence some of the charities saving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea are colluding with people-smugglers.
Carmelo Zuccaro told La Stampa (in Italian) phone calls were being made from Libya to rescue vessels.
Organisations involved in rescue operations have rejected accusations of collusion, saying their only concern is to save lives.
Italy is the main route for migrants trying to reach Europe.
Almost 1,000 people are thought to have drowned in waters between Libya and Italy this year, according to the UN refugee agency.
Nearly 37,000 people have been rescued over the same period, a surge of more than 40% from last year, the figures say.
“We have evidence that there are direct contacts between certain NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and people traffickers in Libya,” Mr Zuccaro is quoted as saying in La Stampa.
He said that telephone calls were being made from Libya and rescuers were shining lamps to direct smugglers’ vessels and turning off transponders so boats could not be traced. But he did not say he would open a criminal investigation.
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>> MUST READ : The Traffic Racket: The Eritrean “Activists”
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Mr Zuccaro’s comments come amid growing criticism of NGO activity in the Mediterranean. The EU border agency Frontex said the work was tantamount to providing a taxi service to Europe.
But Chris Catrambone, who co-founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station NGO to rescue migrants, told Reuters news agency “more would die if we weren’t there”.
Italian Prosecutor Accuses NGOs of Colluding with Human Traffickers in Libya
A prosecutor in Sicily has made the extraordinary claim that NGO migrant rescue boats are in direct communication and collusion with human traffickers in Libya.
“We have evidence that there are direct contacts between certain NGOs and people traffickers in Libya,” Carmelo Zuccaro told Italian newspaper La Stampa.
“We do not yet know if and how we could use this evidence in court, but we are quite certain about what we say; telephone calls from Libya to certain NGOs, lamps that illuminate the route to these organizations’ boats, boats that suddenly turn off their transponders, are ascertained facts,” he said.
Zuccaro is a member of a group of prosecutors investigating the trafficking and exploitation of migrants. He told Italy’s parliament in March that he was sure traffickers were in contact with rescuers, but didn’t have proof.
Some of the organizations involved in migrant rescues include Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontiers), SOS Mediterranee, Save the Children and Malta-based Mobile Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). All have denied accusations that they are in collusion with traffickers.
According to La Stampa, prosecutors are investigating whether some of the newer NGOs involved in rescue operations could be financed by traffickers.
The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement party has also made accusations that NGOs are providing a “taxi service” for migrants.
Luigi Di Maio, vice president of the Chamber of Deputies, a house of Italy’s parliament, accused NGOs of being a “taxi of the Mediterranean,” and defended his statements in a Facebook post.
“There is an investigation of the judiciary in progress and there are two reports from Frontex that accuse NGOs not only of collusion with the smugglers but also of allowing criminals to directly use the boats of NGOs to transport the immigrants.”
Italy is part of an EU-backed plan to strengthen Libya’s coastguard to prevent boats leaving. This would see migrants being sent back to Libya, where recent reports have found migrants are being traded in slave markets.
There were 181,000 arrivals in Italy last year, and so far in 2017 there has been an increase of 40 percent year-on-year, with as many as 1,000 migrants alleged to have lost their lives, reports Reuters, citing the International Organization for Migration.
Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean Catholic priest from the Vatican’s Ethiopian College living in Rome, who has been implicated in facilitating and abetting trans-Mediterranean human smuggling following 2012 investigations by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
According to PACE’s report, Lives Lost in the Mediterranean: Who is Responsible?, Mussie allegedly served as a smuggling intermediary between the ‘captains’ of Italy-bound vessels and the Italian Coast Guard. Without his call, the migrants rescue was unlikely:
The “captain” had the phone, but nobody knew where he had got it from or who had added Father Zerai’s number to it. In a short conversation Father Zerai was informed that they were having problems…The Priest informed them that he would contact the Italian authorities to request assistance. Father Zerai subsequently contacted the Italian Coast Guard…
…However, in the meantime, the “captain” had thrown the compass and the satellite phone overboard when he thought the helicopter was going to rescue them. He explained that he did not want to be arrested for possession of the telephone and the compass. He feared that these items would be used as evidence of his involvement in a smuggling network….
If the captain is afraid of being implicated in smuggling, then how about Mussie Zerai, the man on the other side of the phone? What makes the coast guard willing to pick up the call from Mussie but not the captains themselves? Why does Mussie have this special monopoly?
“When desperate Eritrean migrants go to sea, they keep [Meron’s] phone number with them, in case things go wrong. When their relatives go missing at sea, she’s the one family members call.”
Like Mussie, Meron seems to serve as a liaison between the smugglers and rescuers. She often bears in hand a list of the smuggled Eritrean travelers, frequently tweeting from the scene of the tragedy, arriving before humanitarians and UNHCR officers, and giving quotes to the media.
Tweeting to a BBC Field Producer from ground following the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, she wrote, “I have been passing names to UNHCR Italy and lampadusa center so that they can check for us. Will take days to get name list.” Two days later, she tweeted the list.
@Hewete I have been passing names to UNHCR Italy and lampadusa center so that they can check for us. Will take days to get name list
— Meron Estefanos (@meronina) October 4, 2013
The actions of these “activists” over the last several years have brought to light the makings of what appears to be a multibillion dollar smuggling racket that likely involves not only long-entrenched criminals but also human rights ‘activists,’ non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UNHCR, state agencies and state officials across multiple nations.
Their opportunistic use of smuggling for personal gain in the form of political gain and exploitation of migrants, potentially makes them traffickers in a broader human trafficking network—or, the traffic racket. (NOTE: None of the above stories and allegations have been proven in Court, yet.)