After Italy turned away one ship carrying migrants from northern Africa this month, they’re now upping the ante, saying that they plan to seize two additional ships which have been ferrying migrants back and forth on the Mediterranean. The two ships, the Lifeline and the Seefuchs, claim to be picking up refugees stranded at sea and say that they are Dutch ships on a mission of mercy. But the Italians say that they are illegally flying the Dutch flag and may, in fact, be engaged in human smuggling operations. (BBC)

Italy says it will seize two migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean, citing doubts over their legal status. Italian authorities said the Lifeline and Seefuchs, operated by the German migrant rescue group Mission Lifeline, were “illegally” flying the Dutch flag.

The Lifeline is carrying 226 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya, Mission Lifeline said…

The planned seizure of the Lifeline and Seefuchs comes amid a deepening row over migrant rescues after Italy’s new populist government refused earlier this month to take in a stranded rescue ship carrying 630 migrants.

On the surface, this may at first look like a fairly standard operation. A couple of ships are picking up drowning refugees fleeing war-torn areas and looking for a safe harbor to deliver them to in Europe. What’s not to like, right? But as soon as you begin poking into the details some questions quickly arise. The Lifeline, operated by an organization called Mission Lifeline, quickly denied the Italian claims, tweeting out a document purporting to show their Dutch registration, giving them the right to fly the flag and conduct operations.

But if you take a close look at that document you will see that is not, in fact, a ship’s registration from the Netherlands. It’s actually a registration as a “pleasure yacht” issued by Nederlands Watersport Verbond, otherwise known as the Royal Netherlands Watersport Association. It’s a governing body for yachting, sailing and canoeing, recognized by the International Olympic Committee. This basically gives them permission to dock in the Netherlands and compete in sailing sports, but nothing else. Certainly not to fly their flag at sea.

Of course, all you really had to do was ask the Dutch. They quickly responded from their EU office in Brussels, saying that the ship was not one of theirs and not under their control.

2) The Seefuchs and Lifeline are not sailing under Dutch flag as per UNCLOS flag state responsibility. These ships are owned by German NGOs and not entered into the NL ships register. So NL is not able to give instructions to these ships. Italy is aware of the Dutch position.

That tweet starts with a number 2 because it was just one of a long string of tweets the Dutch sent out raising many questions about these ships. Aside from saying they are owned by German concerns, they raised questions as to whether or not they are seaworthy and able to safely move that many people. They go on from there to say that they, “share Italy’s concerns about the sustained irregular flow of migrants” and their precarious position as the default nation of first arrival.

If you don’t want to take the Dutch at their word, you can look at the home page for Mission Lifeline. They clearly list their address as being in Dresden, Germany:

MISSION LIFELINE eV
Rudolfstrasse 7
01097 Dresden
Telephone: +49 176 31303123
Telephone: +49 351 1607 9801
E-Mail: [email protected]

So if these ships are owned by German NGOs and are registered in Germany, why are they flying a Dutch flag without the permission of the Netherlands? And if they’re not registered in Germany either, they are “stateless vessels,” effectively making them pirate ships. Flying a false flag compounds the problem further. What’s with all the secrecy for a mission of mercy?

Digging further into the ongoing discussion, some observers on the Italian side are suggesting that these ships aren’t actually “rescuing refugees at sea,” or at least not in all cases. They could be engaging in arrangements with human smugglers who charge the migrants money to get them into Europe. And what better way to make sure you’re taken in than to arrive on an international rescue ship? This isn’t established at this point, but the mission statement from Mission Lifeline’s fundraising page goes on at length about how migrants have the right to not drown at sea or “die in the desert.”

Also, who is paying for these operations? They claim that they are entirely funded by donations from both individuals and NGOs. But when I click on the link to see their list of NGO donors I mysteriously get a 404 error. Whenever I hear something about European NGOs being involved with migration issues, only one name comes to mind. I won’t say it aloud here since there’s no link established yet, but it rhymes with Forge Boros.

Do the Italians have a point here? It would need to be definitively established, but if these ships aren’t just doing rescues at sea, but picking up people from smugglers in Africa and taking them to Europe as “rescued refugees” then they’re actually engaging in human trafficking. And, again, if they’re not up to anything shady, why are they flying a false flag? Why not just fly a German flag?

Maybe because then the migrants onboard would become Germany’s problem instead of Italy’s. Food for thought, anyway.