Italy split over allegations of NGO-migrant smuggling case

Source: Xinhua| 2017-05-02 02:29:34|Editor: Mu Xuequan
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By Eric J. Lyman

ROME, May 1 (Xinhua) -- The highest reaches of the Italian government are currently split over accusations that charity groups may be "colluding" with smugglers paid to sneak migrants into Italy, even as the government takes steps to make it easier to return undesirable arrivals back to their home countries.

Carmelo Zuccaro, chief prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Catania, where many migrants are processed, attracted headlines of Italian media in the past days when he said he had evidence that non-governmental groups working to help migrants were cooperating together with smugglers.

Zuccaro did not open an investigation to substantiate his allegations. The controversial charges quickly attracted criticism from Minister of Justice Andrea Orlando -- Zuccaro's superior in the justice system, albeit indirectly -- who said, "It is not appropriate to make a story saying [aid organizations] working in the Mediterranean colluding with people smugglers because that is a lie."

Orlando went on: "I hope the Catania prosecutor's office will let its investigations speak for it because I think it's the best way to clarify things quickly," he said.

But soon after, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano contradicted Orlando, saying he "agreed 100 percent" with the allegations Zuccaro made.

"Those who become indignant at the drop of a hat are hypocrites," Alfano said when asked about the criticism of Zuccaro's statements.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni tried to say neutral in the spat, saying only that if the Zuccaro's has credible proof the government would not stand in the way of an investigation.

The issue remains far from resolved, but it is helping draw more attention to the growing crisis. On a state visit to the U.S. April 20, Gentiloni brought the issue up with U.S. President Donald J. Trump when he said the rising tide of migrants "threatens to engulf Europe."

Meanwhile, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that through the last days of April more than 37,000 people have been rescued, making the crossing between Africa and Italy, a 40-percent increase compared to the same period in 2016. At least 1,000 have died trying to make the trip, the UN said.

Those numbers could be set to rise: in the past, traffic has risen dramatically in the summer, as warmed weather leads to calmer seas and more hours of daylight.

Zuccaro's remarks came just days after Italy's parliament approved a measure to speed up asylum proceedings for migrants processed in Italy.

The so-called Minniti-Orlando immigration law, named for Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti and Orlando, the justice minister, creates several new processing centers, and it expedites the processing time for migrant asylum requests to be processed mostly by eliminating the right to appeal.

Though the law has been approved it has not yet been applied to the specific statutes, something that could take months, according to Setfania Panebianco, a political scientist with the University of Catania as well as Rome's LUISS University.

The measure was hailed by the government has a reform designed to benefit migrants by reducing their waiting time and improve security for Italians by keeping migrants off the streets. But analysts said the main impact would be to make it easier for Italian officials to send migrants back home without due process.

"Italy has mostly been a progressive voice in the migrant crisis but this is a backwards step," Panebianco said in an interview.

"There's no doubt that the courts are overloaded, and this is a way to reduce their workload at the expense of the migrants, who will lose rights."

Maurizio Ambrosini, an expert on the sociology of migration, agreed. "The reform is made in order to impact public opinion, and not to help the migrants," Ambrosini told Xinhua.