Dozens of activists from NGOs including Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières are facing up to 20 years in prison in Italy on “human trafficking” charges after they saved thousands in the Mediterranean.
Italian prosecutors claim that rescue ships arranged direct transfer of refugees from smugglers before returning the boats for further use.
“Saving lives is never a crime…,” Francesca Cancellaro, lawyer for the crew of the Iuventa (a former fishing vessel, operated by a German NGO), told the Guardian. “While the EU turned away from the Mediterranean, transforming it into a mass grave for Europe’s undesirables, the crew of the Iuventa headed to sea as volunteers, in order to protect the fundamental rights to life and to seek asylum, as required by international law and even more importantly, human solidarity.”
This isn’t the first time the Italian government has moved to criminalise sea rescue, though most previous charges have been dropped. It is one part of a long line of policies by successive Italian governments to stem the flow of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean by hardening borders, aiming to make it too difficult and too dangerous for people even to attempt a crossing.
The use of people-smuggling laws to criminalise sea rescue shows how “anti-trafficking” and “anti-modern-slavery” policy can be utterly divorced from and uninterested in the needs of those it claims to help. In fact, a cover for making borders stricter and migration harder, and for policies which create more trafficking by forcing migrants to use more clandestine and dangerous routes.
The criminalisation of sea rescue puts refugees and migrants in acute danger even more directly than other border restrictions and will inevitably lead to more deaths in the Mediterranean. The left must oppose the move to criminalise sea rescue and must fight to extend freedom of movement beyond Europe to ensure safe migration pathways.