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.”