In recent months, a debate has been brewing inside Italy and across the European Unionabout NGOs that operate in the Mediterranean Sea between the coasts of Sicily and Libyato 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.
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