Italy takes NGO ship to Sicily in ongoing illegal immigration probe

Source: Xinhua| 2017-08-05 01:53:03|Editor: yan
Video PlayerClose

ROME, Aug. 4 (Xinhua) -- The Iuventa, a Dutch-flagged ship operated by German migrant-rescue NGO Jugend Rettet that was seized by Italy in a probe into alleged aiding illegal migration, was being taken to the Sicilian port of Trapani on Friday.

The Italian Coast Guard seized the Iuventa by court order on Wednesday off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island.

A lawyer for Jugend Rettet, founded by young Germans in response to mass drownings of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean, confirmed Friday that the youth group is accused of "aiding illegal immigration".

"It's a serious accusation, which we reject," lawyer Leonardo Marino told public broadcaster RAI News24, adding he will appeal against the seizure of the ship and on-board documents and computers.

Jugend Rettet, along with Doctors without Borders (MSF) NGO, last Monday refused to sign a code of conduct for migrant search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean drawn up by the Italian government. Up to now, four NGOs have signed the code.

MSF Italy chief Loris De Filippi told RAI News24 on Friday that "we know our activities are under a magnifying glass".

"Humanitarian action is one thing, investigation is another," De Filippi said. "There must be a very clear humanitarian agenda, and it must be separate from the political or the military agenda."

Prosecutors have been investigating possible links between migrant traffickers and NGOs since last year, following reports by volunteers from Save the Children NGO that some of their fellow humanitarians were acting improperly.

"The coordination of the rescue operations in the Mediterranean is conducted by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, situated in Rome. We are informed about ships in distress via radio or we report back if we sight a ship in distress," says the Jugend Rettet website.

International law says everyone has the duty to rescue others in maritime distress, but the Iuventa crew reportedly intervened before shipwrecks occurred.

Under Italian law, aiding illegal immigrants becomes a crime if the immigrants in question are not in imminent danger of dying.

As a result of the tips, investigators sent an undercover agent on board the Save the Children ship Vos Hestia.

Corriere della Sera paper spoke with the undercover agent, named only as Luca B., aged 45. He called his 40-day mission "the most exacting but also the most moving of my career" because it put him in touch with "people who are suffering, and you realized that sometimes you only have a few seconds of time in which to save them."

The agent also said he was happy he was able to document at least three episodes in which the Jugend Rettet rescuers intervened to pick up migrants from boats that were not in distress, after being in direct contact with human traffickers.

The photos and video he collected were the turning point during the investigation, supplying evidence to obtain a court order to seize the German NGO's ship, Alfredo Fabbrocini from Italy's State Police told RAI News24.

Also on Friday, ANSA news agency cited a survey by Ixe pollsters showing that 28 percent of respondents thought the NGOs are operating correctly, against 67 percent who said there should be more transparency.

The survey of 1,000 Italian respondents also showed 72 percent agreed police should be allowed on board NGO vessels, and 69 percent agreed Italy should deploy the Navy to handle the migrant emergency. Those who disagreed were 24 and 26 percent, respectively.