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Playing Politics with People’s Lives

Attacks in Italy on Efforts to Save Migrants’ Lives in the Mediterranean

Migrants aboard a boat following their rescue from their drifting dinghies in the Mediterranean Seas by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, April 2, 2017. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) searching for and rescuing migrants from rickety or even sinking boats in the Mediterranean are saving lives. Thousands of lives.

Enough said? Apparently not.

In Italy, NGOs have come under a barrage of attacks from politicians, particularly from the 5 Star Movement and the far right Northern League, accusing them of providing a “taxi service” from Libya to the European Union. A media-savvy prosecutor in Sicily has made almost daily statements about his inquiry into NGO search-and-rescue operations, insinuating – without evidence – that they are colluding with and profiting from smuggling operations. NGOs and others have been called to explain themselves before a Senate committee.

The truth of the matter is this: The drivers of migration are many, and Libya is a hell-hole for many who risk brutal abuse and forced labor. People are prepared to risk their lives to reach safety or improve their lives, and the risk of dying at sea doesn’t seem to be a deterrent.

The debate raging in Italy over the role, objectives, and financing of NGOs is a damaging distraction from the real challenges and responsibilities facing not only Italy, but Europe as a whole.

Humanitarian NGOs out at sea are protecting the most fundamental right there is: the right to life. They do so under the control and instructions of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center. It is a measure of how toxic the debate over migration has become that organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Proactiva Open Arms, and Save the Children must defend their life-saving operations. At the same time, their critics side-step the logical conclusion of their arguments – that we should let people drown to deter others from coming to Europe.

If any NGOs are making mistakes, let’s work to improve protocols, training, and coordination. If governments are concerned by the role NGOs are taking on, let’s ensure that governments intensify their own efforts to protect lives at sea. Above all, if so many women, men, and children are risking their lives at sea, let’s rethink EU policies and create more safe and legal migration channels.  

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