Aid workers patrolling the Mediterranean Sea have criticised claims by Italian prosecutors that they are colluding with smugglers to bring refugees and migrants to Europe.

Italian government officials have compared the nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) involved in search-and-rescue operations for asylum seekers attempting to reach European shores to taxi pick-up services.

"While responding to the human tragedy unfolding at Europe's borders, non-governmental organisations themselves are under attack with their rescue efforts publicly discredited," Sophie Beau, vice-president of the rescue group SOS Mediterranee, told Al Jazeera.

"Is this intended to unsettle the minds of the public and the media, sway public opinion and discredit our vital life-saving mission?"

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SOS Mediterranee is one of the 10 NGOs working to save the lives of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea.

Beau and SOS Mediterranee argue their operations are carried out "in complete transparency and compliance with international maritime law as well as national legislations".

Earlier in May, an Italian parliamentary commission called for police to be deployed on or close to NGO boats.

"People aboard the ships are clearly aware of the time and place where they will find vessels carrying migrants, so they are clearly previously informed," Ambrogio Cartosio, a Sicilian prosecutor, told the Italian Senate Defence Commission on May 10.

"We have evidence that [those] aboard know in advance where and when they will reach the migrants."

Pressure on governments

Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, rejected the claim.

"If there was a relationship between NGOs and migrants making the journey, you would expect to see casualties going down," Toaldo told Al Jazeera.

Aid organisations said the accusations are meant to deflect pressure on European governments, who are facing public criticism over the record high numbers of refugee arrivals.

So far this year, at least 1,569 refugees have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The number of refugees arriving in Italy has surged this year [Jugend Rettet]

Rida Essa, head of the Libyan coastguard, has made similar accusations, alleging that NGOs are facilitating the transfer of people into Europe.

Speaking to the Libya Observer in early May, Essa said that rescue boats assure refugees that their journey will be safe, encouraging an influx of "illegal immigrants" from Libya to the EU.

No evidence has yet been produced to back the claims, and none of the NGOs is under judicial inquiry or investigation.

All 10 aid groups have denied the allegations.

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When questioned whether their vessels had ever entered Libyan waters to assist boats in distress, MOAS - another NGO operating a rescue boat - said its vessels only did so in rare emergency situations, and only under the specific instructions of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome, which coordinates rescue efforts.

NGOs play a key role in rescuing people in the Mediterranean Sea.

In 2014, less than one percent of all incoming refugees were plucked from the sea by NGO boats, according to the Italian parliamentary commission.

In the first four months of this 2017, that figure had jumped to 35 percent.

Surging refugee arrivals

The number of refugees arriving in Italy has also surged this year, jumping by more than 30 percent in comparison with the same period last year, with 46,000 people arriving so far.

"The EU's failure to reduce the number of deaths in the Mediterranean through counter-smuggling activities has forced humanitarian organisations to start search and rescue activities," said Beau of SOS Mediterranee.

Libya is the main departure point for refugees hoping to reach Europe by sea.

In March 2016, a central refugee route to the EU through the Balkans was permanently shut, trapping tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Greece and slowing Aegean Sea crossings to a trickle.

Migrants and refugees who pass through Libya are subject to a range of abuses, with hundreds bought and sold in modern-day slave markets, according to the IOM.

Source: Al Jazeera