Inside Italy’s plot to infiltrate migrant rescue boats in the Mediterranean

Migrants are brought aboard a Save the Children rescue boat

By early evening, the boat was full.

The deck, the bow, the stern, the gangways and every nook on the ship had an exhausted person slumped on or in it.

Six hundred and thirty men, women and children from across Africa, the Middle East and Asia had been pulled from flimsy boats bobbing in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Vos Hestia was a 200-foot-long supply boat that had been modified to carry hundreds of people. Even so, the ship was still over capacity.

It was May 23, 2017 and this had been Save the Children’s biggest rescue yet.

The refugees were lucky to have been spotted. More than 2,400 people had already died that year trying to cross the same stretch of water. As British charity worker Karen O’Neill looked over at the faces of the migrants and refugees on board, she wondered what might have happened had her ship not come along.

“It’s absolutely overwhelming, knowing that all these people are safe because of us,” she told me, as we steered away from the Libyan coast back towards Italy.

I had been on the boat for two weeks before the rescue took place. I was there to document their mission from start to finish and to trace the journeys of migrants who were saved.

But we would later discover that not everyone on board was so singularly focused on saving lives. Some working on board as crew members had a secret agenda — one that would ultimately help bring a halt to future rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Migrants and refugees asleep on deck, following a rescue. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

We had no idea at the time that one of the ship hands was, in fact, an undercover agent working for the Italian authorities.

He was there to collect information on rescue workers and their activities out at sea, and to prove — as prosecutors alleged at the time — that charities were secretly colluding with criminal smugglers to bring migrants into Italy.

It was just one part of a large-scale surveillance operation aimed at disrupting rescue missions that, in the eyes of certain Italian officials, had been overloading Europe with migrants and refugees.

This plot set Italy on a war-footing with charities operating in the Mediterranean. Today, a number of them have stopped working in the sea altogether, effectively crippling a lifesaving operation in one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes.

This is a story of lies and spies at sea — about how panic over immigration overtook concern for people fleeing violence and extreme poverty, and how Europe failed one of its biggest humanitarian tests in a generation.

Save the Children lifeboat approaches a migrant dinghy. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

The May 23 rescue had not been an easy one. Good weather and calm waters had meant more boats than usual were launched from the coast of Libya. Dozens of them, each filled with desperate migrants, cast off that day.

Three charity-run ships were out at sea to deal with the rush: Save the Children’s Vos Hestia; the Aquarius, a ship chartered by a Franco-German charity and Doctors Without Borders; and the Iuventa, run by a German youth organization called Jugend Rettet, which means “Youth Rescue.”

Under the direction of the Italy’s official Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, based in Rome, the rescuers worked together for several hours to transfer migrants from unsafe dinghies to their larger ships.

This task is in itself a complicated undertaking. But they also had to deal with heavily armed Libyan coastguard ships circling the rescue boats and hampering their efforts. Gun-toting men on the Libyan vessels fired shots towards the dinghies, terrifying migrants into throwing themselves into the water. They tried to intimidate the charity ships by aiming a large mounted gun in their direction.

The chaotic scene in the sea that day was a fitting metaphor for the crisis in the Mediterranean: an armada of ships and boats working to different ends while migrants faced peril in the water.

This was also the first rescue for Luca Bracco, an Italian undercover agent posing as a security guard on the Vos Hestia.

Undercover agent Luca Bracco pulls a woman onto the Save the Children boat. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

All together, there were three teams working together on the Vos Hestia. The Save the Children crew consisted of aid workers from Britain, Italy, Ireland and Spain — some with decades of experience in the aid sector. The ship’s owner had employed an Italian captain and crew, while an Italian company called IMI Security — hired by Save the Children — helped out with rescues and managed crowd control once the migrants came aboard.

Bracco came onto the ship just days before at a port in Malta. He’d been added to the security team at the last minute by IMI Security’s owner, a 43-year-old former Italian naval officer named Cristian Ricci.

Cristian Ricci assists a rescued woman. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

Ricci told Save the Children that he wouldn’t charge them for the extra pair of hands. This was unusual but not unwelcome. They needed all the help they could get.

It was Ricci’s second year working for Save the Children. He had spent six years as an officer in the Italian navy — in the coast guard. When he retired, he took a job as a private anti-piracy security guard for cargo ships operating in the Indian Ocean. Most of his security team had experience in the police force.

As for Bracco, he didn’t particularly stand out to anyone. He was an athletic looking man with a shaved head. He wore sunglasses most of the time and didn’t like having his photo taken.

I had met both of them in passing, during meal times or in quiet moments during evenings on the ship. But the Save the Children rescuers had a much tighter relationship with the men.

“It was a very close team,” said a Save the Children employee on board. I’ll call her Josie because the charity has not given her authorization to speak to the press. “We would all socialize together and pull together on drills.”

The nature of the environment they faced out at sea forged a tight bond. They faced these grueling rescues together. Often, they lifted dead bodies from the sea.

“Your teammates,” Josie said, “ they’re the people that get you through.”

To the charity workers, both Ricci and Bracco seemed professional and dedicated. There was nothing to suggest that they had ulterior motives — almost nothing. One incident stood out.

Ricci had told Save the Children that Bracco, their new team member, had just come from the Italian fire brigade. “I asked him about being a fireman,” Josie said, “and he was completely and utterly perplexed by the question.”

“We laughed it off,” she said. “I thought I must have got it wrong. I felt a bit stupid but it was something that stayed in my mind.”

Bracco wasn’t a fireman, of course. It was a cover story — one he had apparently forgotten.

He was, in fact, an undercover agent. With Ricci’s help, he had come aboard the Vos Hestia to monitor the charities conducting rescues missions out in the Mediterranean.

Cristian Ricci aboard a rescue vessel. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

He would not have been there at all if it not for Ricci and his security team. By the time Bracco boarded, they had already been feeding information back to the Italian police for some time. Bracco was sent out to embed with the team and corroborate what they had reported — and to find out if any of the rescue workers were violating the law.

Migrant fatigue was growing among politicians and the populace at large. Anti-immigrant politicians stoked fears of rising immigration. The focus in the media turned to the rescuers bringing the migrants to Italy. Prosecutors began investigations into their work.

The information sent back by Ricci’s team and the agent was valuable to the growing ranks of prosecutors in Italy who sought any pretext to shut down migrant rescue operations. 

The Save the Children rescuers were aware of the simmering anger back in Italy — they had felt the brunt of it whenever the stepped off the ship. But they had no idea that it had followed them to sea.

Roughly three months after Bracco first boarded the Vos Hestia — once he’d already come and gone from the ship — his undercover mission became known to the world, including his former shipmates with Save the Children.

The big reveal came on August 2, 2017, when another rescue ship — run by German charity “Youth Rescue” — was impounded by Italian authorities. After the seizure, the prosecutor’s evidence became public. Bracco and Ricci were in all the newspapers.

In Italy, this was front-page news. This bombshell report soon found its way to the Vos Hestia, which was then at sea. “It was four in the morning, in the middle of the rescue, when we found [out about the spying operation],” said another Save the Children aid worker whom I’ll call Rachel.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” she told me. “I was completely stunned. It felt like a huge betrayal.”

It was bewildering to them, crew members said, that both Ricci and Bracco had been able to carry out their undercover operation while pulling men, women and kids from the sea. On separate occasions, both of them had been so overwhelmed following rescues that they had broken down crying. These men knew the value of these missions, and yet they were undermining them.

“Ultimately, I don’t see how you can be involved in a mission like that — bearing witness to the situations that we were bearing witness to — without being completely moved as a human being,” Josie said. “I think you would have to have a cast-iron heart not to be moved.”

The contradiction was confusing to them. 

Save the Children staff look out over the port of Valletta, Malta. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

It wasn’t just that they felt betrayed by people whom they considered friends. It was also the sheer scale of the plot. Such complex undercover operations were common for catching mafioso. But aid workers?

“Maybe Ricci really believed in what he was doing,” said Rachel. “I really don’t know because any possible reason behind this. To me, it makes no sense compared to the damage that he has done.”

Antipathy towards migrant rescue ships didn’t explode all at once. The first charity-run rescue boat arrived in the Mediterranean in 2014, a year in which more than 3,000 refugees had died while trying to cross the sea.

It was run by a Malta-based charity called the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). They worked for a short time alongside an Italian-led, European Union-funded rescue mission called Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”).

But by the end of that year, EU leaders decided that these rescue missions were acting as a “pull factor” that encouraged people to take the dangerous journey. They cancelled Mare Nostrum. But the migrants kept coming. In fact, their numbers increased — and people continued to die at sea.

In April 2015, more than 800 died in a single shipwreck near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, conceded it was “a serious mistake to bring the Mare Nostrum operation to an end. It cost human lives.”

Charities arrived in the Mediterranean to do the work governments would not. They came in a wave from late 2015 to early 2016. And they were largely welcomed by an Italian public shocked at deadly shipwrecks. By the end of 2016, there were nine rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.

And soon they would be burdened even further.

About that time, the EU was brokering a deal with Turkish officials that helped shut down a busy westward migration route into Greece. That compelled more migrants to risk the longer, more deadly boat crossing from Libya to Italy.

They came in large numbers. In 2015, nearly 154,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean. The next year, that jumped to more than 181,000.

Once again, the EU border agency, Frontex, accused charities of making the situation worse — claiming the rise was attributable to the presence of more rescue boats. The charities working in the Mediterranean rejected the claims, arguing that migrants would come regardless of who was there to rescue them.

Independent research backed the aid groups. A report by the Forensic Oceanography department at Goldsmiths, University of London, rejected claims that charities acted as a pull factor, attributing the rise to “a continuation of a trend that had already begun independently of the presence of charities.”

“This rise in crossings (especially of migrants from Central and Western Africa) was the product of worsening economic and political crises that affected several countries and regions across the African continent,” the report said, “including the chaos raging in Libya.”

In 2017, the number of arrivals in Italy dropped to 119,369 — a change largely attributed to an EU-backed crackdown on smuggling operations inside Libya. But by this point, Italy’s migrant processing centers were already overwhelmed and the Italian public was souring on migrant rescues.

Polls by Eurobarometer showed that in 2013, only 4 percent of Italians saw immigration as a major concern. But by November 2017, that number hit 33 percent. Only unemployment and the economy were ranked as bigger public concerns.

Clothes hanging out to dry are seen at an immigration center in Mineo, on the Italian island of Sicily, April 21, 2015. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)

These fears have spread far beyond Italy. More than half of all Europeans now favor a ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries — in effect, a so-called “Muslim ban” strategy akin to the one pushed by US President Donald Trump. Charities bringing migrants to land have become scapegoats for an issue that Europe is struggling to deal with as a whole.

In the summer of 2017, the Italian government began piling on the pressure. It drafted a “code of conduct” that charities working in the Mediterranean had to sign if they wanted to keep using Italian ports. One key condition: Upon request, ships must allow police officers on board.

Human Rights Watch said this code of conduct “may in some cases hinder rescue operations and delay disembarkations in a safe place within a reasonable amount of time, breaching the obligations states and shipmasters have under the law of the sea.”

Many charities, including Médecins Sans Frontières and Jugend Rettet, refused to sign. This resistance was perfect fodder for Italy’s anti-immigrant parties, which seized on a new phrase to describe rescue missions.

They were called “taxis of the sea,” a term coined by Luigi Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment, anti-migrant Five Star Movement. The label stuck.

This narrative may have originated with right-wing politicians, but it also gained momentum in the mainstream press. On the Save the Children boat, theories about charities colluding with criminal traffickers seemed to consume the Italian security team: Ricci, the former naval officer, and the ex-police officers he’d hired as his crew.

At the time, Ricci was pushing Save the Children to take a more proactive approach in working with the Italian authorities. He wanted them to help identify who was driving the migrant boats at sea during the rescues and to provide detailed reports on the people they picked up.

Senior staff members with Save the Children told me Ricci was persistent in this request. Their response was always the same: Humanitarian rescuers don’t do police work. They would cooperate with police and answer all their questions, but they weren’t going to act as a marine police force. That appeared to put the matter to rest.

Or so they thought.

Back in Italy at that time, a number of prosecutors were investigating aid groups in the hopes of proving that they were, in fact, colluding with human traffickers. The belief, in essence, was that they were establishing rendezvous points — places in the ocean where smugglers could dump loads of people and wait for charity boats to come pick them up.

Once rebuffed by Save the Children, Ricci and his team secretly aided police by sending detailed reports of what they considered to be wrongdoing. Several of his staff members — Pietro Gallo, Floriana Ballestra and Lucio Montanino — were contacting Italy’s police. Unknown to Ricci, some even sent messages to leaders of the two core anti-immigrant parties in Italy: the Five Star Movement and La Lega.

With the help of this amateur spying, a number of prosecutors decided they had enough dirt on the charities to launch formal investigations. One such investigation was started by a prosecutor from the Italian town of Trapani, a fishing port on the coast of Sicily, and it began in late 2016. This was the investigation that led Bracco to disguise his identity and come aboard the Save the Children boat — facilitated by Ricci.

From their post on the Vos Hestia, the security workers gained a window into all of the other rescue operations at sea — most notably the German “Youth Rescue” team, which prosecutors most strongly suspected of working with human traffickers.

In February 2017, another team of prosecutors launched a fact-finding mission from the Sicilian town of Catania, a key drop-off point for migrants rescued at sea. It was led by a prosecutor named Carmelo Zuccaro. He told Italy’s parliament that he was “convinced” charities were coordinating with smugglers.

His investigation would eventually lead to the seizure of the “Youth Rescue” boat. Intel from Bracco was crucial in getting the ship detained. (The charity denies any collusion with traffickers.)

It was in this atmosphere that Italy went to the polls in March 2018.

The anti-immigrant party known as Lega (“League”) ran a campaign propelled by anti-immigrant fervor — with a particular focus on shutting down “taxis of the sea.”

In a major upset, the party won the second-largest number of votes. It was the runner-up to another anti-immigrant party, the Five Star Movement. Both now rule as a coalition promising mass deportations and crackdowns on migrant-rescuing do gooders.

In the weeks after this victory, I went to visit one of Lega’s new MPs in Caltanissetta, a city near the Sicilian capital of Palermo, where the landscape is marked by rolling hills.

Alessandro Pagano, from the anti-migrant Lega party, at his office in Sicily. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

Fresh from his victory, Alessandro Pagano still had a touch of the campaign about him. When I met him in his office, he told me that people are rankled by immigration all across the nation.

“We didn’t even need to explain it on the campaign trail. Because it was so obvious, so big a thing,” Pagano said. “There is not a single town in Sicily that does not have hundreds, if not thousands, of these people who are hanging around in the streets — and for whom it costs a lot to maintain.”

Pagano said the party tapped into a growing resentment among the Italian people towards the rescuers in particular.

“When this all started, there was a pretense that this operation was all in the name of solidarity,” Pagano said. “The Italians now understand perfectly that it is not about solidarity. It’s business. It’s an invasion.”

Tomany humanitarian workers, Ricci is now something of a villain.

Ricci, in their view, was the conduit who brought spies into their midst. Without his deception, these investigations would not have gotten off the ground.

The rescuers note that everything they did at sea was coordinated and directed by the Italian coast guard, headquartered in Rome. They said there was no way they could’ve gone rogue and worked with smugglers. They insist that all these investigations have been political in nature — a means of demonizing their work and stopping rescues at any cost.

But I was keen to reconnect with Ricci, to hear his justification for deceiving the rescuers.

To my surprise, he seemed eager to meet. He told me that he’d been scandalized by reports in the Italian press claiming he was deeply linked to far-right groups. He wanted to set the record straight.

Sitting on a park bench in the port town of Livorno, in northern Italy — coincidentally situated in front of a migrant center — Ricci told me he had no regrets.

Cristian Ricci was head of security on key Save the Children rescue missions in the Mediterranean. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

“I come from the Italian coast guard. And the main duty is to save life at sea,” he said. “So for me, it was something very, very beautiful to work in this kind of job. But we have to divide the trafficker and the people we need to help.”

As it turns out, Ricci still does not believe that Save the Children or other charities were ever cooperating with people smugglers, the core allegation of prosecutors.

But he was always keen to help police identify what he called “facilitators and traffickers” hiding among those they rescued. He believes rescuers weren’t trying to separate genuine refugees from poor migrants hoping to illegally move to Europe.

This hinted at a cultural and ideological divide on the ship — a system of beliefs that tended to separate straight-up humanitarians and the security team, which drew from law-and-order police and military backgrounds.

Ricci told me that, like his estranged Save the Children shipmates, he too was shocked to see his name go public. He didn’t know that information would ever reach the press.

Nor did he realize that the Italian authorities were spying on him as well.

During that time, Ricci’s phone calls were tapped and recorded. Within the prosecutor’s now-public file, there are long transcripts of conversations between him and his staff — speculating on various charity ships’ activities and documenting their movements.

Once the plot was revealed, Bracco disappeared from public view. That left the media to present Ricci as the face of the operation. “It was terrible,” he said. “I was home with my wife and every five minutes someone from the media called to speak with me.”

After the media firestorm erupted, he stopped speaking to any of his old crew mates from Save the Children. But he still has warm feelings about his time with them at sea.

“We loved our job. We loved the mission to save life at sea,” he said. “But we need to divide the good and the bad. For the (charities), it is not this way. All are good. It’s a different mentality.”

Given that a number of aid ships had been taken off the sea as a result of this investigations, I had to ask: would he do the same thing again?

Yes, Ricci said.

“I followed my conscience.”

The consequences of the investigation sparked by Ricci are still felt to this day.

As their name suggests, the Germany charity “Youth Rescue” were a young crowd. They were all volunteers who had seen the news about migrant deaths and decided to raise money to buy a ship.

They were cut from a different cloth than the bigger charities operating on the Mediterranean. Their boat, the Iuventa, was smaller and less comfortable than the other ships. When they were carrying out rescues, they often lacked space for everyone that needed help — so they’d stabilize the migrants’ little rubber dinghies until a bigger rescue ship arrived.

Information from Bracco was crucial in getting the Iuventa seized. Police had also snuck onto their ship and planted microphones on the bridge to record the captain’s conversations.

I had first met Julian Pahlke — one of the group’s volunteers — in Malta, where by coincidence the Iuventa was docked in port for resupply alongside the Save the Children boat. It was a rare occurrence — dozens of rescuers who had only ever heard each others’ voices on the radio were meeting face to face for the first time. They poked around each other’s ships and swapped rescue stories.

In April, I caught up with Pahlke again, after he left Italy’s Supreme Court. He had come to try to get the judges to release his seized rescue boat.

The Supreme Court turned down his appeal. The ship remains in Italian custody.

The seizure order for the Iuventa is 551 pages long. It focuses on three rescues between September 2016 and June 2017 when prosecutors allege that the Iuventa was “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.”

The two central claims: volunteers established rendezvous points with smugglers and, secondly, that they returned empty boats to traffickers for re-use. “Youth Rescue” denies both claims.

“This is nothing else but crazy,” Pahlke said. “It just fits the strategy of politicians at the moment to criminalize those who rescue. Because they have no idea how to deal with this situation … These investigations are completely of a political nature.”

The Iuventa wasn’t the only ship that was seized. In March, a rescue ship run by a Spanish charity called Proactiva Open Arms was also impounded — right after a rescue of 200-plus migrants off the Libyan coast.

During that operation, the charity had disobeyed an order from the Libyan coast guard to leave the migrant boats alone and abandon the pickup. Their justification for continuing was that migrants in Libya face “grave violations of human rights.”

That ship was released in April, but Italian authorities are continuing to investigate — leaving the operation in limbo. And Save the Children is suffering the same uneasy fate.

Atthe time of writing, Save the Children’s boat — the Vos Hestia — is at port in Alexandria, Egypt. It is no longer saving lives. The hulking ship has returned to its original purpose as a supply vessel.

Before the role of Ricci and his team in the police investigation came to light, Save the Children had already ended their relationship with Ricci’s company. They had kept on some of his staff, but employed them through a different agency. 

When the investigation was revealed in August, they decided to hire a completely new team, according to a senior staff member. They wanted to bring in a non-Italian crew so they could avoid a similar undercover operation happening.

Up to that point, the investigation had not reached Save the Children directly. But in late October, Italian police officers boarded the Vos Hestia while it sat in port in Catania, Sicily.

They seized computers, documents and phones in order to investigate “alleged illicit conduct committed by third parties.” The ship’s captain was later told he was under investigation.

The same day, Save the Children said it was suspending its mission in the Mediterranean.

“For too long we have been the substitution for the inexistent and inadequate European policies for search and rescue and for hosting migrants,” Save the Children Director General Valerio Neri said in a statement.

Save the Children said their decision was made before the raid on their ship, but staff put a significant portion of the blame on the investigation sparked by their shipmates.

“They really they put a huge shadow on Iuventa, on us. And they just reinforced this strategy of getting rid of [charities] from the Mediterranean Sea,” said one rescuer.

Another said: “What struck me was that it was completely and utterly unnecessary. Everything that Save the Children had done had been done with complete integrity and transparency. There was nothing to hide.”

During its two years at sea, Save the Children had rescued 10,000 migrants trying to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

The Italian government’s efforts belong to a broader strategy — one that intends to deflect the arrival of migrants into Europe by creating bigger and tougher obstacles on the other side of the sea, namely in northern Africa. That’s where the migrants’ ship departures begin.

In Libya — the main cast-off point for migrants coming from Africa — Italian authorities are aiding the Libyan coast guard in picking up migrants and sending them back to their countries of origin.

Bolstering a state agency in Libya is a massive undertaking. Since the ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has existed in a state of chaos and lawlessness. A fragile United Nations-backed government holds sway in Tripoli. But rival militias control the rest of the North African country’s coast.

Libya has become hell for migrants passing through en route to Europe. The International Organization for Migration has called it a “torture archipelago”where migrants face abuse, rape and a very real prospect of getting swept into slave markets.

Back in May 2017 — on the day Save the Children’s crew, including Ricci and Bracco, pulled so many men, women and children from choppy waters — practically all of the migrants had tales of horror from their time in Libya.

One of them was Awa, a 35-year-old woman who had traveled from Sierra Leone with her two children. She’d been held for five months in a migrant detention center in the capital, Tripoli. She told me she experienced regular beatings.

“They ask you to pay money,” she said. “If you don’t have it, they will not release you. They will punish you.”

Awa, wearing a blue jacket, stands with her children after a rescue ship carried them from waters near Libya across the sea to Italy. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Invesitgations)

Awa managed to flee when one of her captors left a door open. Someone found her in the street and took her to a stretch of coastline where boats frequently launch. “When we reached the seaside, he left me there. I see this boat. I see people enter. So I begged one man to take my baby. He took it and I climbed in too. So this is how I find myself here.”

These are typical stories from migrants fleeing Libya — and yet, in Italy and throughout Europe, tales of cruelty are downplayed as anti-migrant sentiments rise.

Italy is not alone in trying to prop up Libya’s coast guard. The EU has poured money into Libya to boost its migrant-stopping abilities and, in February 2017, EU leaders agreed to provide Libya’s shaky government with $215 million to disrupt smuggler networks and improve conditions at detention centers.

Italy was even accused of paying off a major Libyan militia to bring the coastline under control and stop boats from launching. Rome has also supplied funds to coast guards and other police agencies as far away as Tunisia and Niger.

Collectively, these tactics have caused the number of migrants leaving North African shores to drop.

According to the Italian interior ministry, more than 6,400 migrants crossed from Libya from January through April — a drop of 80 percent compared to the same period last year. But while these actions may stop more families from arriving in Europe, their suffering on the other side of the sea has only increased.

Amnesty International contends that, in Libya, roughly 7,000 migrants and refugees are now held in squalid detention centers. Some face torture and even execution.

“The EU is turning a blind eye to the suffering caused by its callous immigration policies that outsource border control to Libya,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director.

“When European leaders spare no effort to ensure the Libyan Coast Guard intercepts as many people as possible,” Morayef said, “they are sending those migrants and refugees straight back to Libya’s detention centres which are notorious for abuse and torture. No one should be sending anyone back to Libya.”

A rescued migrant looks out from the Vos Hestia toward Italy. (Richard Hall/GlobalPost Investigations)

Last year, there were 10 ships carrying out rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Today, just a few organizations remain on the water.

For Italy’s right wing, this is cause for celebration. In early June, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega party, made a triumphant visit to Sicily — the main drop-off point for migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.

Until last year, the party could not have dreamed of winning seats so far south. The party — originally called Lega Nord (Northern League) was founded to claim independence for Italy’s wealthier northern regions and break away from the comparatively poorer south. The party nixed the “northern” bit of its name late last year.

Now they are a force to be reckoned with in, of all places, Sicily. In March’s elections, Salvini’s party came second. He has since been named interior minister — and now he has the chance to drive home the policies that brought him to power.

In the seaside town of Pozzallo, Salvini proclaimed that “Italy and Sicily cannot be Europe’s refugee camp.”

“Some idiots think I want people to die at sea,” he said. “They haven’t understood a thing. There is only one way to save these lives: fewer people leaving, more repatriations.”

Just hours before he spoke, a boat packed with migrants headed for Italy sank off the coast of Tunisia, killing 112 people.

Salvini did not mention these victims in his remarks to supporters. But their deaths were symbolic in more ways than one.

It was a reminder that people dying at sea — people trying to seek a better life in Europe — are a constant drumbeat to the political changes happening on land.

Despite the thousands of deaths at sea, despite the danger migrants face before they even reach a boat, and despite the clear signs that they are not welcome in Europe, they still go.

Whatever is pushing people to leave their homes — whether it be the hopelessness of poverty, conflict or a lack of freedom — will always be stronger than the risks ahead of them.

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