Church cautious on charges that migrant care has become a racket

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ROME – Catholic leaders are taking a cautious approach after a recent viral video suggested that migrant relief in the Mediterranean is becoming a racket, allowing NGOs and human traffickers to cash in at the expense of vulnerable people.

This scandal has sparked a war among sovereign states, NGOs, criminal organizations, and the European Union.

At the core of the debate is Europe’s migrant crisis, the worst the continent has faced since World War II. According to a YouTube video by Italian student Luca Donadel, part of the crisis now may be artificial. He charges NGOs have been picking up migrants a few miles from the Libyan coast and bringing them to Europe unlawfully, basically in order to keep the flow of money for their care going.

“The horrors of war, the suffering and constant escapes, the risks of the open sea, the economic and sexual exploitation were not enough,” reads a recent article by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano based on Donadel’s research.

“Another scandal is emerging on the skin of migrants: The suspicion, which unfortunately is not totally devoid of foundation, of economic and political manipulation in rescue missions.”

Through sophisticated and expensive computer programs, Donadel was able to track the trajectories of NGO-operated boats in the Mediterranean Sea, and found a very different story from that being told by the mainstream media.

While headlines claim that migrants are being saved in the Sicilian Straight, between the southern Italian island of Sicily and Tunisia, in truth the NGO ‘saviors’ were traveling miles toward Libya where they found derelict boats overflowing with migrants that they took back to Italy.


Migrants being shuttled from the Libyan coast to Italy by NGO boats. (Credit: Gif from YouTube Video)

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, if a ship finds people in need of help they are required to take them to the nearest safe port, which in the case of the migrants found off the coast of Libya is the city of Zarzis in Tunisia.

In an interview with Crux, Mario Marazziti, a member of the Italian House of Representatives and spokesmen for the community of Sant’Egidio, a lay movement particularly active in the migrant sector, points to the fact that Tunisia does not represent a safe port due to social and political unrest.

“It is also necessary to guarantee ‘the possibility to ask for asylum and have a dignified welcome’,”Marazziti said. “That’s why they are brought to Italy, and, through another route, to Greece.”

But why, Donadel asks, are the NGOs traveling three times the distance to bring these people to Italy? According to him, the answer is simple: Profit.

Quoting a 2016 book by Mario Giordano titled Profugopoli, Donadel points to the enormous profits made by NGOs since the migrant crisis began. The European Union only provides roughly $100,000 to aid Italy in the welcoming of migrants, leaving the country alone to pick up the remaining $3 billion check.

This money is for the most part handed out to NGOs, which, according to Donadel, are invested in keeping the flow of migrants high. The migrant handling business has been booming in Italy and Europe, creating hundreds of thousand of jobs.

Number of migrants arriving in Europe through the Mediterranean Sea in Europe since 2017. (Credit: UNHRC.)

Number of migrants arriving in Europe through the Mediterranean Sea in Europe since 2017. (Credit: UNHRC.)

Between January and April 2017 about 36,000 people left Libya in the hope of a better life in Italy, a 30 percent increase compared to last year.

Most importantly, Donadel accuses the NGOs that are shuttling migrants to Europe of being responsible for the surge of deaths at sea. In 2013 the Italian government initiated Operation Mare Nostrum, which patrolled the Mediterranean in an effort to tackle the growing migrant crisis. One year later it was substituted by Operation Triton, under the leadership of the EU’s border security agency Frontex.

But data shows that since the implementation of these organizations, the number of deaths in the Mediterranean has grown tenfold. From the 700 registered deaths in 2013, the number rose to more than 5,000 in 2016, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Without NGOs the number of those who die at sea would be double, probably much, much higher,” Marazziti underlined.

“If NGOs did not approach the 12-mile line from the Libyan coasts, but stopped at 30, there would be 600 square maritime miles unchecked, and a much higher number of casualties. It’s math. Only this time, it involves human lives.”

The reality is that traffickers are now confident that NGO-run boats will rescue them as soon as they leave the coast, and therefore have ever lower standards for the ships they use to transfer migrants. While once they had to prepare for long and harrowing journeys on the capricious Mediterranean seas, now they know rescue will come.

Unfortunately, many times the rescue missions fail, or are too late to avoid tragedies.

But another answer for explaining the surge of deaths is the Frontex policy of destroying trafficker’s boats once they save the passengers and the crew. This system, meant to discourage traffickers from setting sail, had the unintended effect of forcing them to use progressively less sturdy boats for their voyage.

But according to a lawyer from Catania in Sicily, Antonio Zuccaro, some traffickers even call the NGO boats on the phone in order to be saved. This past Wednesday, he presented his case before the Italian Senate’s Commission for Defense and soon will speak before the High Council of the Judiciary.

But Marazziti insists that there is no such tie and that the lawyer has no proof of his assumptions.

“There is no NGO, with ties to the Catholic and Christian world or not tied to these realities, that is really involved in this issue. For now, it would seem, there is only some wiretapping that shows communications between a crew member on a private boat and traffickers. This can happen. The crews are rarely tied to NGOs,” Marazziti told Crux.

The Catholic Church has taken a cautious stance on the scandal in anticipation of further proof.

“NGOs save lives: We must not confuse those who help with those who take advantage,” warned Bishop Nunzio Galatino, the Secretary General of the Italian Bishop’s Conference (CEI), in an interview with Italian magazine Il Secolo.

Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms has been active in the mediterranean since 2015, and to this day has completed 37 missions and saved more than 18,000 people.  Its founder Oscar Camps, had a 40-minute audience with Pope Francis on April 22, just as the allegations against NGOs were beginning to surface.

While speaking to the press after the meeting, Camps said that the audience was an opportunity to talk about the stories of those saved at sea and that the pope is the only global leader who has the migrant issue at heart. Camps met Francis in 2016, when he gifted him with the lifejacket of a six-year old girl who died at sea.

The pope has effectively made the migrant crisis a cornerstone of his pontificate. Pope Francis while recognizing that “every country has the right to control its borders,” as he told Spanish newspaper El País in January, has also called the global community to action and solidarity with migrants.

Early in his pontificate Francis laid a wreath in the Mediterranean sea, the stage of so many migrant deaths, and asked forgiveness “for those who at the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies.”

Migrants have been let down by many international organizations and have paid for the consequences “on their skin.” But according to Marazziti, NGOs are performing a task that is not only necessary but also humane, and the recent criticism only makes it harder for them to do it.

“The damage is enormous. It’s cultural: It confirms the view that everything is dirty, nothing is safe, and this is damaging to the society,” Marazziti told Crux.

“I would not be surprised if it emerged that these attacks were encouraged by sections that would like to take the control of operations away from Italy and the Coast Guard,” he said. “Maybe in order to allow for a more aggressive policy in the future, one of prohibition, stronger, and with more deaths.”

For now, NGOs and the EU are entwined in a debate about the care and handling of migrants, with the Church in a sense standing on the sidelines. Only time will tell which one will emerge victorious, and whether migrants will continue to be the victims.