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20th Jan 2020

Italy softens claim of NGOs colluding with smugglers

Italy's interior under-secretary, Domenico Manzione, appears to have softened accusations that aid groups are complicit in smuggling people across the Mediterranean sea from Libya.

Speaking to MEPs in the civil liberties committee (Libe), Manzione said NGOs are performing a welcomed duty in saving people at sea, but that they need to follow rules and be more transparent.

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"We need to make sure that those who do become active in the Mediterranean, play by the same rules and follow orders," he said on Thursday (8 June).

He said the big issue was that some NGOs, active in the Sicilian channel for example, are disobeying orders by not bringing rescued people to the first port of safety.

"It has to be the first safe port ... the port of their choosing might not have the necessary infrastructure," he said.

However, he noted there was also a political dimension behind the issue, which gripped headlines following a news report last December by the Financial Times (FT) newspaper.

Sicilian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro launched an investigation on the back of the FT article, which quoted the EU's border agency, Frontex, as saying that some charities are colluding with people smugglers.

The FT later issued a correction to the original story, noting that it had "overstated the content of confidential briefings" provided by Frontex, but Zuccaro maintained he had evidence of direct contact between NGOs and people smugglers in Libya.

But the Intercept, a US-based media outlet, had in April managed to obtain a full copy of the Frontex report that was initially seen by the FT. The report noted, among other things, that there was little evidence to support the original accusation.

When pressed on the issue in late April, the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, also told reporters that they had no evidence to suggest NGOs are working with people smugglers.

"We do not have as the European Union evidence of that kind," she said.

Frontex, meanwhile, had also released a 64-page risk analysis report in February, which further accused NGOs of helping criminals of achieving their objectives at minimum cost.

The report said the rescue operations end up helping criminals because it strengthens "their business model by increasing the chances of success."

Operation Sophia

However, broader questions remain over the role of the EU's naval operation, Sophia, given its mandate also to destroy seized vessels. It has seized some 300 since the end of 2015.

Among the concerns is that people are being forced onto increasingly less seaworthy boats as a result, such as inflatable throw-away dinghies. Fewer seaworthy boats means that NGOs operating close to the Libyan border become an even more vital lifeline for people.

Some 160,000 people have crossed the sea to Italy this year alone, among which over 1,500 have died.

"We are not against search and rescue, search and rescue is our duty and we welcome the fact that NGOs are involved there, we can't thank them enough," said Manzione.

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