ROME – A Spanish NGO that operates in the Mediterranean Sea, and which has ties to Pope Francis through its founder, has been accused of allegedly colluding with traffickers in order to ‘taxi’ migrants from the Libyan coasts to Italy.

There is no suggestion that Pope Francis approved of, or was even aware of, the controversial activity.

This is the latest development in an ongoing debate in Europe that sees NGOs under attack for taking their boats close to the North African coast, and consequentially encouraging traffickers to use unfit vessels confident that rescue is on the way.

According to some critics, the NGOs make a profit, alongside the traffickers, by cashing in on the millions of dollars set aside for the migrant-handling business in the E.U.

Images have surfaced on the web showing that the boats belonging to the Spanish NGO “Proactiva Open Arms” were as close as one nautical mile from the Libyan coast on July 25, well outside the international waters in which they’re supposed to operate.

A tracking of Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms within Libyan territorial waters on July 20, 2017. (Credit: migrant rescue watch.)

The founder of Proactiva, Oscar Camps, has met with Pope Francis on two occasions. The first time was in 2016, when he gifted the pontiff with the lifejacket of a six-year old Syrian girl who died at sea.

Pope Francis used the vest to illustrate the plight of migrants when talking to over four hundred children immigrants and refugees of different ethnicities, cultures and religions at the Vatican in 2016.  “He brought me this jacket,” the pope said referring to Camps. “With tears in his eyes he said to me, ‘Father, I couldn’t do it – there was a little girl on the waves, and I did all I could, but I couldn’t save her: only her life vest was left.’”

The second was a 40-minute audience on April 22, just as the allegations against NGOs were beginning to surface in Italian media. 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.

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

Concerning the recent accusations against NGOs, Catholic media outlets took different approaches. On one side, the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, was quick to criticize the scandal, that weighed on “the skin of migrants.” On the other, an editorial in Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), insisted that the world of NGOs is “demanding and good,” and that “one cannot remain neutral and indifferent in front of the efforts made to defame its image.”

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In a tweet, Camps defended himself from accusations of colluding with traffickers by claiming that the “AIS signal has been hacked to show we’re in Libyan waters,” and that they updated the Italian coast guard every two hours about their position. (The reference is to the Automatic Identification System, a positioning system for ships used to avoid collisions.)

Skeptical about Camps’ claims, various nationalist and anti-immigration Twitter accounts have decried the behavior of the Open Arms vessel, comparing it to a “taxi service,” adding that it only leads to more migrants braving the Mediterranean Sea and consequentially more deaths.

“In reality, there is very little evidence and proof of this type of argument,” Luca Raineri, analyst and researcher at the St. Anna University of Pisa specialized in Northern Africa, told Crux in an interview, in essence supporting Camps.

“We know that migrant flows are caused by all kinds of dynamics, and that it is not the presence of NGOs that stimulates, eases or amplifies these dynamics,” he said.

“To talk of a ‘taxi service’ seems to me, frankly, to be an excessive statement,” he said.

In a May interview with Crux, Mario Marazziti, president of the committee for social affairs at the Italian House of Representatives and former spokesmen for the community of Sant’Egidio, a lay movement particularly active in the migrant sector, took a similar position.

“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,” he said.

The Italian government, in an effort to exercise further control and monitoring of NGO’s running Search and Rescue operations in the Mediterranean, has proposed a ‘code of conduct’ to be signed by the nine organizations active there.

These are Doctors Without Borders, Moas, SOS Méditerranée, Sea Watch, Sea Eye, Proactiva Open Arms, LifeBoat, Jugend Rettet and Save the Children.

The code includes 13 points, presented on July 26, and to be signed on Monday July 31. The most contested points are:

  • An interdiction from approaching the Libyan waters if not “in circumstances of extreme and immediate danger.”
  • An obligation to keep the transponders on the boat active at all times.
  • Not moving the people saved onto other boats.
  • Declaring funding sources.
  • Allowing the judicial police on board for routine checks.

Organizations that refuse to sign the code of conduct may not be allowed to have access to the Italian ports.

On July 28, NGOs were asked to submit their proposed changes to the code, which mostly focused on the point that allows the police to board the boats. The Italian Ministry of the Interior said that important “steps forward” had been made and that the meetings proceeded in an environment of “collaboration and understanding.”

Meanwhile, Proactiva Open Arms found 13 bodies of migrants off the coast of Libya on July 25. “Several pregnant women and mothers among the (dead),” Camps wrote on Twitter.

“And we are apparently the only ones who need a code of conduct.”