Staff working for three charities are due before a Sicilian court on Saturday accused of collaborating with smugglers to illegally bring migrants to the EU after their rescue from ill-equipped boats in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Italian authorities accuse the 21 – who include rescue ship captains and support staff – of crossing the line from running humanitarian missions to helping smugglers with a “ferry service” to collect migrants in international waters before taking them to the EU.
Rights groups have criticised the prosecution as a politically-motivated attempt to prevent refugees from reaching “Fortress Europe” and is just the latest in a series of clashes involving volunteer organisations and Italy, one of the main gateways to Europe for those fleeing war and hardship.
Rescue ships have been impounded or left for weeks without assigned ports to offload migrants, while co-ordination efforts between EU and charity officials has hit an all-time low, according to groups involved in the rescues. The head of the EU border agency, Frontex, quit last month after facing criticism for alleged pushbacks – the illegal practice of forcing back migrants who had reached EU waters.
The defendants – who could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of assisting illegal immigration – include four German members of the rescue ship Iuventa, which was seized in August 2017 as part of the criminal investigation by Sicilian authorities.
A three-year investigation focused on rescue ship operations between September 2016 and October 2017 involving the Iuventa, operated by German charity Jugend Rettet, and two other vessels run by Doctors without Borders and Save the Children. The other two ships were not seized.
The hearing in Trapani, Sicily, on Saturday is expected to be the first of many over months before an Italian judge decides if the 21 should face a full trial, according to a lawyer for the four Iuventa crew members.
“Over one year, our crews managed to rescue more than 14,000 people in distress from already unseaworthy, but additionally overcrowded, boats on the open sea,” said Kathrin Schmidt, one of the four accused from the Iuventa. “For having done so, we now face 20 years in prison.”
Italian prosecutors allege that the near 450 people rescued in three identified Iuventa missions in 2016 and 2017 were to assist with illegal entry to Italy rather than to prevent people from dying, according to the defendants. The migrants were picked up outside the 12-mile limit of Libyan waters and taken to Sicily.
Ms Schmidt pointed to the 22,527 people who have died in the eight years from 2014 attempting to cross from North Africa, according to UN figures.
The rescue crews are also accused of sending some of the boats back towards Libyan waters for re-use by the smugglers, a claim denied by the defendants.
The lawyer for the four, Nicola Canestrini, said Italian authorities had not identified any contacts between the rescue ships and Libyan smugglers in a near 30,000-page case file. “Saving lives can’t be a crime,” he said. “The charges have political implications, they serve political interests. The verdict will have deep political impact.”
The seizure of the Iuventa came after Italy set conditions for rescue vessels in 2017, in an attempt to stop them from transferring migrants to other vessels to allow them to remain off Libya and rescue more people.
Jugend Rettet was one of a number of organisations that refused to sign the undertaking.
In 2019, a group of five UN rights experts criticised Italy for criminalising search and rescue operations. “Rescuing migrants in distress at sea is not a crime,” the experts said. “We urge the Italian authorities to immediately stop the criminalisation of search and rescue operations.”