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The EU’s border agency has raised concerns about the interaction of charities and people smugglers operating in the Mediterranean, according to confidential reports seen by the Financial Times.
The points outlined by Frontex bring to the fore a long-simmering dispute between EU officials and non-governmental organisations over how to resolve a migration crisis that has caused the deaths of 4,700 people this year alone.
Frontex put its concerns in a confidential report last month, raising the idea that migrants had been given “clear indications before departure on the precise direction to be followed in order to reach the NGOs’ boats”.
The agency also raised concerns in another report last week, which stated: “First reported case where the criminal networks were smuggling migrants directly on an NGO vessel.”
NGOs operating in the region emphatically denied working with people smugglers.
Elsewhere in the reports, which were shared among EU officials and diplomats, Frontex said people rescued by NGO vessels were often “not willing to co-operate with debriefing experts at all” with some claiming “that they were warned not to co-operate with Italian law enforcement or Frontex”.
The number of rescues triggered by a distress signal fell from roughly two-thirds of all incidents this summer to barely one in 10 in October, according to Frontex figures. This drop-off coincided with a jump in the number of rescues carried out by NGOs in the central Mediterranean. They responded to more than 40 per cent of rescues in October, compared with just 5 per cent at the start of the year.
It is no wonder that these accusations come now. We have a worsening situation in the central Med and a lot of efforts taken by the EU to shutdown migration. They are trying to shut this down by all means necessary
Frontex also suggested the change in activity could be down to NGOs operating closer to Libyan territorial waters, or even to the lights used by rescue boats, which — the agency said — acted “as a beam for the migrants”.
Charities operating in the region reacted angrily to the accusations. They say a drop in distress calls from boats carrying migrants has been due to increased rescue efforts, meaning that people were picked up before their situation worsened.
Aurelie Ponthieu, a humanitarian adviser with Médecins Sans Frontières, which operates two rescue boats, said: “We are actively searching for boats in distress. We spot them earlier. This is a response to the needs that we see at sea.”
So far this year more than 170,000 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, about 15 per cent more than last year, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. The number of deaths has jumped by a quarter after 3,800 last year.
NGO workers blamed the increased numbers of deaths on smugglers changing tactics and sending people out on increasingly unseaworthy vessels — a trend that they blamed on a crackdown on people smugglers by EU authorities. Ms Ponthieu said the agency’s focus was misconceived. She said the issue was “why so many people die, which is what Frontex should be focusing on. They should be looking at their own actions.”
MSF this year said it would refuse EU funding in protest at the bloc’s handling of the refugee crisis.
Founded in 2004, Frontex has scooped up more staff, money and powers as the EU attempts to get to grips with a growing problem of irregular migration. The EU this year turned the agency, which has a €250m budget, into a fully fledged border guard with the power to deploy 1,500 staff to support a member state if they are overwhelmed by arrivals.
Frontex also criticised charities for failing to help with investigations into people smuggling by refusing to collect leftover evidence from rescued boats. “We have an obligation to help save their lives, not perform the duties of security agencies,” said Save the Children, which has rescued 2,400 people in October and November.
The European Commission is examining whether stricter control of non-governmental rescue missions is needed, although officials stressed that legislation was unlikely.
NGOs have played a crucial role in saving thousands of lives in the central Mediterranean, according to the commission, and have “mostly acted in support [of] and close co-ordination” with governments.
Ruben Neugebauer, of Sea Watch, a German charity that runs rescue operations, said the EU was attempting to criminalise the efforts of NGOs in the Mediterranean. “It is no wonder that these accusations come now. We have a worsening situation in the central Med and a lot of efforts taken by the EU to shut down migration. They are trying to shut this down by all means necessary.”
This article has been revised since original publication to correct inaccuracy and because comments by Aurelie Ponthieu of MSF were initially wrongly attributed