Rescuing drowning migrants became a crime
as patrol boats with flashing blue lights surrounded the Iuventa, just outside the port of Lampedusa on the evening of 1 August 2017, its crew were more annoyed than alarmed. For three days, the old fishing trawler, crewed by volunteers from the German NGO Jugend Rettet (Youth Rescue), had answered a string of requests from the Italian coastguard that to them made no sense. “This madness hopefully will soon be over,” read a message sent from the ship’s bridge to Jugend Rettet base camp shortly after 10pm.
In the summer of 2017, two years on from the peak of Europe’s refugee crisis, smugglers in Libya were still sending hundreds of people a day to sea in unsafe rubber boats, and the Iuventa’s crew wanted to be where the action was. In a patch of sea just off the coast of north Africa, about a dozen NGO ships were searching for boats in distress – a direct challenge, as many of them saw it, to European governments that had scaled back state-run rescue efforts.
Yet the Iuventa had been following instructions that drew it further away from the rescue zone and closer to Italian territorial waters. According to the ship’s records, the Italian coastguard first told the crew to rendezvous with an Italian navy ship to collect two men found adrift at sea, and deliver them to another. The second ship never turned up. Then they were told to look for a blue and white fishing boat with 50 people on board, apparently foundering in the sea close to Lampedusa. As night fell on 1 August, after a day spent searching the waves in vain, a message came through: call off your search and proceed into port.
It was the third time in a few months that the ship had been ordered into the harbour at Lampedusa. In just over a year, the Iuventa – crewed by a group of young, motivated people “who could not stand to see the situation in the Mediterranean any longer”, as one put it to me – rescued more than 14,000 people. Most of these rescues were coordinated by the Italian coastguard, but the relationship was increasingly strained. The Iuventa’s revolving crew of volunteers were outspoken critics of Europe’s border policies, and the small, agile ship took more risks than some of the larger NGO vessels, sailing as close as possible to Libyan waters in order to be able to rescue people from unsafe boats sooner. As one Italian media outlet put it, the ship was “like a sort of Berliner squat out in the middle of the sea – very well organised, radical and antagonistic”.
As the Iuventa entered the harbour of Lampedusa, the crew expected to be questioned briefly by police, as they had been on previous occasions, then allowed to get back to work. They were wrong. Within a few hours, their ship would be seized, marking the beginning of a long and still unresolved criminal investigation that leaves 10 humanitarian volunteers facing up to 20 years in prison.
In the small hours of 2 August, while a crowd of journalists assembled on the quayside filmed and took photographs, detectives specialising in organised crime searched the Iuventa. The following morning, before the crew were even fully informed of the case against them, details were splashed across the Italian media. This “German extremist NGO”, as one newspaper later put it, was suspected of aiding illegal immigration – a crime in Italian law – by collaborating with Libyan smugglers. News outlets quoted liberally from a case file that showed the Iuventa had been under surveillance for months: there were even transcripts from a recording device placed on the ship’s bridge. Police photographs, labelled and distributed to news agencies, purported to show several occasions on which the ship’s crew had received migrants directly from boats driven by smugglers themselves.
“We don’t have anything to hide, and we are looking forward to returning to the search and rescue zone one day, to fight for human rights,” declared a member of the crew, who gave her name as Katrin, in a video statement released to the media. But these were explosive allegations, at a time when migration had become such a toxic issue that Italy’s interior minister declared he “feared for the democratic integrity of the country”. Italy’s populist opposition parties led the charge against rescuers, accusing them of being taxi del mare, a “sea taxi” service for migrants, while the government was pressuring NGOs to limit their operations. In the spring of 2017, two other NGOs had been investigated – but this was the first time a ship had been seized. Within months, under the looming threat of prosecution, NGOs were all but forced out of the Mediterranean.
Today, the Iuventa remains impounded, and 10 of its crew members are still waiting to find out if they will face trial. They deny ever working with smugglers, and have assembled documentary evidence that they say proves their innocence. More disturbingly, investigative journalists in Italy and elsewhere have unearthed evidence which appears to show that the surveillance began not with the Italian state, but with a spying plot involving a private security agency and the far-right political leader Matteo Salvini.
The case is not yet over, but it has already marked a turning point: in just a few years, Europe has gone from saving lives at sea to attacking the people who do it. And it all began with the moment, in the words of the Italian author and migration specialist Annalisa Camilli, that “humanitarians were transformed from angels at sea into dangerous collaborators with smugglers”.
More than three years since he last sailed a rescue mission, Dariush Beigui’s mind still clicks into gear when he sees news of a boat in distress in the Mediterranean. The German skipper, a punk rock fan who pilots barges around the port of Hamburg for a living, mentally prepares to wake up his crewmates, to manoeuvre the Iuventa into position and scan the horizon with binoculars, ready to dispatch the ship’s speedboat. But with the Iuventa sitting idle in the Sicilian port of Trapani, none of this is possible. “The hardest thing for me is to sit here watching social media, knowing that if I was there I could help,” he told me. “Maybe not to rescue everybody, but at least one person.”
I met Beigui in Berlin in early 2020, along with two other members of the “Iuventa 10”, Hendrik Simon and Sascha Girke. All three, now in their early 40s, volunteered to work on the Iuventa after Jugend Rettet launched in 2015 via a crowdfunding campaign. Many of the volunteers knew each other from past campaigns in environmentalist, antifascist and squatting movements, and they brought practical skills to the Mediterranean, along with a DIY ethos: Girke works as a paramedic in a town outside Berlin; Simon, an IT technician from Bremen, had driven speedboats for Greenpeace.
In the summer of 2016, when the Iuventa first went to sea, the number of people crossing the central Mediterranean from Libya was at record levels. The people-smuggling trade, once tightly controlled by the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Europe’s behalf, had boomed as the country collapsed into civil war. Since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, tens of thousands of people a year – displaced by war, looking for work, or just desperate to get out of Libya – paid for passage on overcrowded inflatable dinghies that were pushed out to sea with only a few hours’ worth of fuel. Unless given assistance, once they got into open water, these boats would sink. In 2016, more than 4,500 people drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean.
An increasing proportion of the rescues were carried out by private organisations. By 2016, nine separate charities, from global aid agencies such as Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to smaller, newly formed groups, patrolled international waters close to Libya.
The Iuventa quickly gained a reputation as one of the more daring rescue outfits. “Saving people from drowning is always a humanitarian act,” Simon told me, “[but] I was going there as a political activist because I don’t agree with European border policies.” While the Iuventa put its speed and agility to use at sea, Jugend Rettet’s volunteers held protest actions on land, calling for “ferries not Frontex” – the provocative suggestion, with reference to the EU’s border agency, that migrants should be allowed to travel freely.
Yet 2016 was also the year that anti-refugee politics came to the fore in Europe and the US. Italy, where the majority of people rescued off the coast of Libya disembarked, was finding itself increasingly isolated. Three years earlier, in response to a growing number of shipwrecks on its southern border, Italy had taken the bold step of sending its navy out into international waters to search for boats in distress. The country’s centre-left government gambled that the operation, which it called Mare Nostrum – “our sea” in Latin, after the ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean – would prompt its European neighbours into supporting the rescue effort, and helping look after the people rescued.
The hoped-for support never arrived. Mare Nostrum was replaced by a far smaller EU operation, while responsibility for accommodating new arrivals remained with the country in which they disembarked. As Europe’s increasingly panicked governments discussed how to reduce migration across the Mediterranean, Italy’s neighbours began to seal off their land borders, preventing asylum seekers from continuing their journeys. By late 2016, around 200,000 people were stuck in Italy’s slow-moving asylum system, management of which cost well over €3bn a year.
Italian coastguard officials began to take a less welcoming attitude to the NGO rescuers. “There was increasingly this delaying and questioning of our missions,” said Girke, who volunteered multiple times as coordinator, either on board the Iuventa or at Jugend Rettet base camp on Malta. One point of contention seemed to be that the Iuventa would often transfer the people it picked up to better-equipped larger ships, so it could quickly return to the rescue zone. According to Girke, officials would often try to insist that the Iuventa took all the people it had rescued back to port – he suspects, to slow down its operations.
In October 2016, three employees of a private security agency visited police in Trapani. The three had been working as security guards on board the Vos Hestia, a ship chartered by the UK aid organisation Save the Children, as a condition of the vessel’s insurance. On 10 September, the Vos Hestia had crossed paths with the Iuventa during a rescue: a long, gruelling day of pulling people out of the water, in which six dinghies, each with more than a hundred people onboard, were adrift and sinking. The Iuventa’s deck had become dangerously busy, and the Vos Hestia was one of several ships that arrived to help relieve the pressure.
One of the security guards, Pietro Gallo, told police that shortly after the Vos Hestia took some of the Iuventa’s passengers on board, he saw a dinghy heading away from the Iuventa, driven by two “dark-skinned” men. This, he said, “made us believe that the crew of the Iuventa had received migrants from the dinghy … which was returning to the [Libyan] coast with the smugglers onboard.” The security guards assumed this meant that the Iuventa had collected migrants from smugglers by prior arrangement, rather than rescuing people whose lives were in danger.
Had the Iuventa’s crew committed a crime? They say they had no contact with smugglers, pointing out that no evidence besides the security guards’ testimony has been offered for the incident, and that several other vessels including an Irish navy ship were present at the scene. Nor, they say, was the alleged incident mentioned in the official Frontex report on that day’s rescue. But after the allegations from security guards, prosecutors in Trapani authorised a surveillance operation, placing an undercover officer on Save the Children’s ship. The officer would pose as a security guard alongside Gallo and his colleagues, watching the Iuventa from afar.
In late November, the Iuventa entered port for the winter. By the end of the year, 181,436 people had been rescued from the central Mediterranean – and Italy appeared to welcome the contribution of the NGOs. At the end of the year, Girke told me, he attended a meeting in Rome with the Italian coastguard, to discuss how they could improve cooperation. “They were asking us to come back next year with bigger ships,” he said.
in the spring of 2017, six months after Gallo and his colleagues visited the police in Trapani, the prominent opposition politician Salvini made a startling claim on the TV talkshow In mezz’ora (“In half an hour”). In a heated debate with a representative of MSF, Salvini stated that he had seen a dossier by Italy’s secret services about contact between people smugglers and some of the NGOs. “There are weapons and drugs onboard some of those ships,” he added.
“How do you know?” asked the presenter, clearly taken aback.
“I listen to the people who work on these boats,” Salvini replied.
No more details of the “phantom dossier”, as one media outlet described it, ever emerged. But Salvini had been in contact with the security guards on board the Vos Hestia. According to Gallo, in September 2016, the trio emailed AISE, the Italian secret service, with their suspicions about the Iuventa. When nobody there responded, said Gallo, they tried Salvini.
“[Salvini] called back a few minutes later,” Gallo told the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano last year. “He wanted to meet us immediately, but we explained that we were about to embark, so he gave us the number of one of his contacts.” According to Gallo, Salvini asked them to secretly document what they saw at sea, and pass the information on to his office via an intermediary.
Salvini has only partially confirmed the account, telling Il Fatto Quotidiano that he “disseminated” some “highly interesting” information he received from one of Gallo’s colleagues. What we do know, however, is that in the early months of 2017, Salvini transformed the fortunes of the party he leads, the Lega Nord, by helping bring the claim that NGO rescuers were collaborating with smugglers from the far-right fringe into the mainstream of political debate.
The situation in the Mediterranean had become a rallying point for far-right activists across Europe. In December 2016, the Gefira Foundation, an obscure Dutch thinktank that purports to monitor the “extinction” of Europe’s “indigenous peoples”, published a report in which it claimed that search and rescue was a “scam” in which “NGOs, smugglers, the mafia, in cahoots with the European Union, have shipped thousands of illegals into Europe under the pretext of rescuing people”. Within weeks, similar claims then began to circulate among far-right social media accounts.
The narrative entered Italian politics, too. In February 2017, a Sicilian prosecutor called Carmelo Zuccaro announced a taskforce to investigate the NGOs, later claiming that smugglers and rescuers were colluding in order to destabilise the Italian economy. The following month, a hitherto unknown blogger, a 23-year-old media and communications student from Turin called Luca Donadel, posted a video to his Facebook page titled “the truth about migrants”, which argued that NGOs were running a “taxi service” for financial gain. Within days, Donadel’s video went viral, shared by Salvini on his own social media accounts, and discussed on Striscia la notizia, a popular satirical TV show. Italy’s other main opposition party, the Five Star Movement, joined the fray, and by April the accusation that the NGOs were “sea taxis” – a phrase coined by the Five Star Movement’s then leader, Luigi Di Maio, dominated the airwaves.
As the moral panic intensified, state surveillance of the Iuventa stepped up a gear. In May, the ship was twice ordered to leave the rescue zone near Libya and dock at Lampedusa. Beigui, Girke and Simon now think that this is when the ship’s bridge was bugged, although at the time they had no idea. “Maybe it was a bit naive,” said Simon, “but we were thinking like: ‘Come on, we are rescuing people from drowning, what’s the worst that could happen?’”
Italy’s government, under pressure from both its domestic opposition and other European states to reduce migration, was turning against the rescuers. Marco Minniti, a former political head of the intelligence services, had taken over as interior minister at the end of 2016. Unlike his predecessors, Minniti was convinced that the priority was to prevent migrants from leaving Libya. He struck deals with several of the armed groups that controlled Libya, offering training to what remained of the country’s coastguard – and negotiating with the militias that controlled smuggling in the coastal cities, to put a halt to migration.
As summer 2017 approached, however, the numbers leaving Libya reached a new record. At the end of June, Minniti had a flight to Washington DC turned around when he heard the news that 12,000 people, rescued from the Mediterranean in the space of a few days, were making their way to Italian ports. After an emergency summit, in which Italian officials briefed the media that NGOs were to blame for encouraging people smugglers, Minniti unveiled a tough new code of conduct for rescue vessels. It included the demand that boats bring rescued migrants directly to port rather than transferring them to larger ships, a condition that would have severely limited the operations of smaller vessels like the Iuventa. Several NGOs, including Jugend Rettet, refused to sign the document in its original form; MSF said the code would lead to “more drownings”.
By mid-August, it seemed as though Minniti’s agreements in Libya were finally taking effect. The number of people crossing the Mediterranean fell drastically. But as lurid details from the Iuventa case file spread throughout the media, the NGOs were now the centre of attention. “The NGOs don’t give a toss about migrants, it’s just the business opportunity of the moment,” said “Lucio M”, one of the security guards who worked with Gallo on board the Vos Hestia