Carmelo Zuccaro, chief prosecutor of Catania, in Sicily, said that a task force was conducting an informal probe into whether human traffickers were working together with humanitarian groups and financing rescue boats. Catania is near the Sicilian port that receives refugees crossing the Mediterranean to come to Europe.
There are several NGOs operating ships on the Mediterranean. One of the first to do so in 2014 was the Maltese group Moas. Rescue organizations today include German NGOs like Sea Watch, Sea Eye, Jugend Rettet, Spain's Proactiva Open Arms, and other non-profit groups like Save the Children and SOS Mediterranee. Recently, the Aquarius, which is chartered by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), has rescued over 250 migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean.
"Last summer, we saw something we'd never seen before," Zuccaro told Reuters. "At times, there were 13 boats operated by NGOs working at once. Do these NGOs all have the same motivations? And who is financing them?" he asked. Small NGOs seemed to have sophisticated hardware, such as drones, to run their operations. "That's expensive, and we're just looking into who is financing them and why," he added.
According to Zuccaro, the groups sustained a daily expenditure of around 11,000 euros for the Aquarius, and the Maltese NGO Moas spent around 400,000 euros every month for its operations, which include the vessels Phoenix and Topaz Responder, and the use of reconnaissance drones. So far, no formal investigation has been ordered into the case.
'An absurd allegation'
For humanitarian groups, the accusation of colluding with human traffickers is a serious one. "It is an absurd allegation," Lena Waldhoff, spokeswoman for Jugend Rettet, said. "We have a strong feeling that it is a matter of political will to criminalize rescuers and move them away from the operational zones," she explained.
In a bid to counter the rise of the populist far right, EU countries met in February, resolving to "take additional action to significantly reduce migratory flows along the Central Mediterranean route and break the business model of smugglers."
Waldhoff's organization uses crowdfunding to finance its operations. Every month, Jugend Rettet collects around 40,000 euros for rescuing people in the Mediterranean. "We travel with our rescue ship and are placed at a 24-nautical-miles-distance from Libya. On a typical day, we start at the break of dawn and come closer to the 12-nautical-miles-distance to the Libyan coast," Waldhoff said.
Four people from the rescue team use binoculars and keep on the lookout for migrant dinghies. "All this while, we are in close contact with the MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center) in Rome," Waldhoff explained. The process is relatively smooth if the boats have a satellite phone and can contact the sea emergency. In such cases, the MRCC directs members of Jugend Rettet to help the refugees. However, this rarely happens.
Humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders also follows a strict protocol. "All rescue operations are coordinated by the MRCC in Rome," MSF spokesman Philipp Frisch said. "The center finds out which ships are placed best to rescue people in distress. These could be ships from private organizations or normal, commercial ships. They are then sent to a specific location, from where, for example, an SOS message has been received," he explained.
MSF's private and organizational donors worldwide help it finance its projects and its deployment in the Mediterranean with two ships, the Aquarius and Prudence.
Saving lives is the only option
According to figures released by the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, over one million refugees reached Europe by sea in 2015. Nearly 35,000 people crossed over by land. The increased numbers fuelled a strong anti-immigrant sentiment, prompting countries like Hungary to build border fences. In Germany, the fear of the far right and terror attacks has recently prompted politicians to introduce stricter enforcement of deportations of terror suspects.
"There is this clear feeling that it doesn't help that many rescue ships have been deployed when the actual goal is to close this route, with a military operation which fights smuggler networks and which works together with the Libyan coast guard," Waldhoff from Jugend Rettet said.
From the perspective of Philipp Frisch, head of Doctors Without Borders' advocacy unit in Berlin, the basic argument linking increasing migrant numbers to rescue organizations was a warped one. "To say that we, through our presence with our ships, lead to more people coming through this dangerous route, and to go to the extent that we impede the fight against human traffickers or contribute to the business model of smugglers: all these accusations are not only wrong. They also bypass the actual issue: that humanitarian rescuers are present in the Mediterranean Sea exclusively to save lives," he told DW.
According to Frisch, Doctors Without Borders' actions in the Mediterranean were a reaction to people drowning there. Deploying rescue ships is not the final solution to resolving the Mediterranean crisis. But "as a humanitarian organization, all we can do is to try and rescue people who are in danger," he explained.
Last year, around 364,000 refugees reached Italy and Greece by sea. Over 5,000 people died in the crossing attempt. Nearly 1,150 people have died this year until now.