Italians debate whether rescuing migrants at sea can be a crime

IMAGE: CNS photo/Elio Desiderio, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — As temperatures heated up in Italy in
late July and August, so did the debate over migration policy and,
particularly, over the rescue of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the
Mediterranean Sea.

Italian officials are investigating an Eritrean Catholic
priest and a German humanitarian organization on suspicion of “aiding and
abetting illegal migration,” but overcrowded and unseaworthy boats
carrying migrants and refugees continue to make their way toward Italy’s
shores.

For years Italy has been the first port of call for refugees
and migrants desperate to reach Europe and, as Pope Francis often has noted,
the country has received little help from its European Union partners in
rescuing, caring for and processing the newcomers.

The EU’s 2013 Dublin Accord stipulates that requests for
asylum and migrant processing must be handled by the first EU country a migrant
or refugee enters. Because of its geographical proximity to Libya — the
primary port of departure to Europe — Italy usually is that first country,
although Malta also is a frontline destination.

In late July, Italy’s prime minister announced an agreement
with the Libyan government to have Italian military ships join Libyan ships in
patrolling the Libyan coast. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the aim was to
halt human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Migrants pay criminals for a
place on the boats.

But, of course, many Italian politicians applauded the move
as the best way to stop the influx of migrants and refugees.

Pope Francis, the Vatican office for migrants and refugees
and a host of Catholic agencies and humanitarian organizations have long argued
that the best way to defeat the traffickers is to expand quotas for legal
immigration throughout Europe. Bypassing the traffickers would allow countries
to organize the reception and would save migrants from the dangers that come
from the sea and from extortion by the traffickers and a host of players that
prey on the desperate in Libya.

The Italian government’s second approach to handling the
migration crisis was to attempt to forge an agreement with the nongovernmental
organizations who are rescuing people at sea, providing food, water, medical
care and safe transport to an Italian port.

Right-wing political groups have claimed the likelihood of
being rescued simply emboldens smugglers, who provide boats that are in increasingly
bad shape, betting those onboard will be rescued.

Italy asked the NGOs to sign a “code of conduct”
promising, among other things: to refrain from communicating with or signaling
to refugee boats in a way that facilitates their departure from Libyan waters;
to inform the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Center about migrant
sightings and rescue operations; to ferry rescued persons directly to a port
without transferring them to or from other rescue boats; and, when requested,
to allow police onboard to investigate possible cases of migrant smuggling or
human trafficking.

Some NGOs, like Doctors Without Borders, refused to sign the
agreement. The rule against transferring migrants between boats would mean all
rescue vessels would be making long roundtrips, rather than having the bigger
boats go to port and smaller boats continuing to patrol, the organization said.
In addition, the organization asked for a stipulation that investigating police
would not be armed because it does not permit weapons aboard its ships; the
Italian Interior Ministry declined to amend the agreement.

Jugend Rettet, a Germany-based group that raised money from
young Europeans to buy a rescue ship, also declined to sign the agreement.

Italian authorities seized the Jugend Rettet’s ship, the
Iuventa, Aug. 3, claiming that on as many as three occasions, the group did not
technically rescue migrants at risk in the sea, but rather transferred them to
the Iuventa from the hands of smugglers. The prosecutor in the case emphasized,
however, that the group is not accused of accepting money or anything else from
the smugglers.

Also under investigation for “aiding and abetting
illegal immigration” is Father Mussie Zerai, a Rome-based priest from
Eritrea and hero to many refugees and aid agencies that assist them. Since
2003, when someone wrote his phone number on the wall of a migrant detention
center in Libya, Father Zerai has responded to distress calls from migrants on
sinking boats in the Mediterranean and forwarded the position of the boats to
the Italian and Maltese coast guards and to NGO rescue ships.

He told Avvenire, the Italian Catholic newspaper, that he
never has had contact with Jugend Rettet, if that’s how his name came up, and
he has never contacted any NGO for a rescue without informing either the
Italian or the Maltese coast guard. The charges, he said Aug. 9, are “slanderous.”

For Vatican officials, Catholic aid agencies and even a top
official from the Italian foreign ministry, the campaign against humanitarian
agencies is a bizarre twist in the debate over the best way to handle the
migration crisis.

Mario Giro, vice minister for foreign affairs and the former
Africa expert for the Catholic Sant’Egidio Community, said Jugend Rettet and
others may be examples of “humanitarian extremism,” but that is more
humane and more Christian than any of the other extreme positions being voiced.

“Are the NGOs right to save lives in the sea or should
their salvation be the exclusive prerogative of state action,” Giro asked
in a guest column in Avvenire Aug. 8. Deciding whether to proceed with criminal
charges against Jugend Rettet, the Italian magistrates will have to determine
“how to ‘sanction’ those who do not respect some of the rules of conduct
established by the government without introducing — as an Avvenire editorial
phrased it — a kind of ‘humanitarian crime.'”

Giro called for caution and calm, urging his government and
the NGOs to take seriously each other’s concerns and work together for a
solution. Even with their limits, he said, the NGOs represent “the
globalization of aid” as surely as the migrant smugglers and human
traffickers represent the globalization of crime.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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