Who is really responsible for deadly refugee journeys?

The EU should stop blaming NGOs for saving lives at sea and start tackling the problems that force people to migrate.

Migrants in an overcrowded plastic raft reach out for life jackets during a search and rescue operation by rescue ship Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranean and Doctors without Borders
Refugees in an overcrowded plastic raft reach out for life jackets during a search and rescue operation by rescue ship Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranean and MSF [Kenny Karpov/Reuters]

In recent months, a debate has been brewing inside Italy and across the European Union about NGOs that operate in the Mediterranean Sea between the coasts of Sicily and Libya to conduct search and rescue operations (SAR) to save refugees fleeing Africa – where at least 1300 people have drowned attempting the dangerous journey so far this year, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants project.

The dispute surrounding SARs started in December last year, after a Financial Times news report alleged that the EU’s border agency, Frontex, had “accused charities operating in the Mediterranean of colluding with people smugglers”. The news report, which was based on leaked memos by the border agency, also suggested that Frontex believes the lights used by rescue boats act “as a beam for the migrants”.

Frontex was quick to distance itself from the news story and deny that their memos ever suggested that the NGOs were “colluding with people smugglers”. But the agency’s denial has not stopped Italian prosecutors and politicians, far-right activists, EU leaders, as well as Fabrice Leggerie, the director of Frontex, from continuing to accuse NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, or Save the Children who have been operating in the Mediterranean, of playing a role in the refugee crisis.

The arguments currently being made against NGOs and their role in the refugee crisis are not only disingenuous, but according to Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch (HRW), are also a “damaging distraction from the real challenges and responsibilities facing not only Italy, but Europe as a whole”.

Sunderland, of course, is right – EU leaders and Italian politicians have avoided taking any responsibility for the current crisis in the Mediterranean or the nightmare situation unravelling inside and around Libya, where Sub-saharan migrants have been tortured, abused, killed and are now being sold into slavery in open markets.

OPINION: Death in the Mediterranean

While Italian prosecutors accuse NGO workers of colluding with smugglers, Italian politicians such as Interior Minister Marco Minniti have pushed and passed a series of laws making it more difficult for refugees to appeal rejected asylum cases as well as plans to build more detention centres to hold asylum seekers throughout the duration of their cases.

Excuses, Excuses

Although brief accommodations were made for Syrian refugees by some EU countries, especially Germany, after millions were displaced as a result of the deadly civil war in the country, the EU has opted to find any rationale, no matter how flimsy and untrue, to reject the claims of asylum seekers.

In March 2016, a leaked EU document (pdf) was released which described EU plans to deport 80,000 or more Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan

Instead of creating outlandish conspiracies against NGOs to shore up the support for Europe's anti-migrant racists and empowering far-right elements, the EU and the Italian government should take a look in the mirror and correct their own actions.


The leaked document spelled out how the EU planned to make aid packages to Afghanistan “migration sensitive”, meaning that aid would be contingent upon the Afghan government’s signing of the Joint Way Forward Agreement – which is illegal according to international law.

“The State Building Contract for EUR 200 million in preparation is intended to be made migration sensitive, probably through one indicator linking it to the government’s policy on migration and return and possibly to the implementation of the Joint Way Forward,” the document said. 

Also within the leaked document, a narrative was introduced where Afghans seeking asylum in Europe were compartmentalised into groups where some were no longer called “refugees”, but referred to as “irregular” or “economic” migrants.

The downgrading of Afghans from “refugee” to “migrant” has allowed for the EU to circumvent international laws regarding the rights of refugees the world over. The change in narrative has loosened restrictions on EU deportations – allowing for quick and easy rejections of asylum cases of not just Afghans, but of Somalians, Eritreans, Nigerians and others as well. 

Inter-European Colonialism

In order to stop the flow of migration from the south to northern Europe, EU leaders have been enforcing “first entry” laws attached to the Dublin Regulations which trap asylum seekers in the first EU country they have entered until their cases are ruled upon. For the most part, this means asylum seekers have been stuck anywhere from six months to several years in Greece and Italy with little to no support. 

Considering that both Italy and Greece are the hardest hit EU countries from the 2007-2008 economic collapse, the two countries have had little power to confront Germany or other northern states, due to heavy reliance on austerity deals and loan forgiveness.

OPINION: I listen to refugees and I hear my own story

With failing economies, rising unemployment and growing anger, the EU has largely managed to avoid the wrath of its southern citizens by trapping asylum seekers in Italy and Greece where right-wing activists and neo-fascists, as well opportunist politicians, have fed and grown off anti-migrant sentiments rather than challenging EU leadership for what many in the southern states are continuing to call inter-European colonialism. 

Manufacturing Fascism

In Italy, the charge against NGOs is being led by the Catania (Sicily) prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, who despite admitting to having “no evidence” has repeatedly claimed NGOs are in direct contact with traffickers. Italy’s far-right political party Lega Nord, or “Northern League”, as well as the up-and-coming Five Star Movement have backed Zuccaro’s claims in order to capitalise on anti-immigrant racism inside the country in time for next elections

In the EU generally, neo-Nazis and far-right groups like the transnational Generation Identitaire (GI) have also used Zuccaro’s argument to increase their numbers and galvanise racists across Europe into taking action. Earlier this month, GI teamed up with white supremacists from Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Canada and the United States in an effort to stop Aquarius – a rescue boat used by MSF for SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Alt-right, white supremacist activist and former Rebel Media journalist Lauren Southern lit flares with three others and attempted to block Aquarius from leaving the coast of Sicily towards Libya before being briefly detained and released by the Italian coastguard.

The group’s actions have received praise from neo-Nazis and neo-fascists across the globe and they already started to plan their next move against rescue missions at sea. 

Nowhere in the arguments of in Italy’s far-right parliamentarians and prosecutors is there any mention of how EU policies and laws have exacerbated the situation. There is no mention of the EU’s role in the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq – or how that has led to the current situation in Syria which has displaced up to five million outside the country. 

Also missing from the argument is how Italian officials have held secret meetings in Libya with questionable armed militias to patrol Libya’s southern border. “Securing Libya’s southern border means securing Europe’s southern border”, Minniti said last month after striking a deal with Libyan tribal groups, essentially moving EU borders and border controls well into Africa.

READ MORE: EU roadmap for Libya to stem flow of sea migrants

Instead of creating outlandish conspiracies against NGOs to shore up the support for Europe’s anti-migrant racists and empowering far-right elements, the EU and the Italian government should take a look in the mirror and correct their own actions. They should start with rebuking US President Donald Trump at the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels, where he is expected to ask NATO leaders to commit more troops to combat in Afghanistan – a move which will only cause more waves of refugees to leave the country and start a perilous journey towards Europe.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article implied that Lauren Southern is still associated with Rebel Media. She left the organisation in March and is working as an independent journalist now.

Mohammed Harun Arsalai is an independent journalist and political activist from the Bay Area of California, and cofounder of the independent media project, Documenting Afghanistan Currently based in his native Afghanistan, Mohammed has reported on US social movements, police violence, and racism for Bay Area Intifada which he cofounded. His recent work focuses on refugees, the “war on terror“, and violent groups operating in Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.