Italy has begun enforcing its new code of conduct for NGO vessels operating in the Meditteranean Sea on Wednesday with the seizure of a migrant rescue boat operated by the German NGO Jugend Rettet. Only three out of nine NGO’s operating search-and-rescue activities in waters off Libya have accepted the new rules. Italian authorities say the code is necessary to ensure the boats are not effectively encouraging migrants to embark on the perilous crossing. Jugend Rettet, which has refused to sign the code, had its ship, the Iuventa, intercepted off Lampedusa before dawn, after which it was escorted to the island for ‘routine checks’ according to an Italian coast guard spokesman. Police boarded the ship and checked the crew’s passports, later taking command of the ship and sailing it to a larger port on Sicily. This was the first time Italy has seized a vessel operated by an NGO.

Political activists claim they’re out rescuing: Italian Public Prosecutor has ‘evidence of encounters between traffickers and crewmembers’

The seizure came amidst growing suspicion that the role played by NGO’s in the Meditteranean Sea is not only humanitarian, but more activist, with NGO’s actually picking up migrants off the Libyan coast to bring them to Italian ports. Italian media have reported that the Iuventa had two Syrians aboard, who were subsequently taken to a refugee centre, but Reuters reports this could not be immediately confirmed. What could be confirmed, however, is that the Chief Prosecutor of Trapani hasn’t charged anyone yet, but that the investigation is ongoing:

“We have evidence of encounters between traffickers, who escorted illegal immigrants to the Iuventa, and members of the boat’s crew.”

Italy has been working with authorities in Libya to strengthen its coast guard, providing training and new equipment to boost its effectiveness in combating human trafficking, by intercepting migrant boats before they reach international waters. In line with this, the Italian Parliament discussed further support for Libya on Wednesday.

Proposals are for a naval mission, comprising of logistic ships and patrol boats, to support in Libya’s coast guard activities. Officials believe that sending boats back to Libyan ports will have the effect of deterring would-be migrants – especially in view of the exorbitant fees migrants must pay their traffickers. The approach has been criticised by international human rights groups, who claim people returned to a troubled Libya face detention in squalid camps, and abuse at the hands of traffickers.

Jugend Rettet meanwhile has claimed the Iuventa has not been impounded, and the crew not arrested, while claiming operations are in line with previous experience.

Jugend Rettet is defending themselves by claiming that they cannot sign the Italian code of conduct because the code does not prioritise saving people in need, which they claim to be their priority.

But, make no mistake: this is not an organisation committed just to rescuing those in need. It is a political organisation, which pursues political goals, under the guise of ‘humanitarianism’. As becomes clear from its self-proclaimed goals:

As young Europeans we cannot – and don’t want to – accept the status quo of the European asylum policies. Of the political actors we demand to ease the distress of refugees and to offer practical help. We need a program focussing on rescue from maritime emergency and we need to decriminalise the seek for asylum and refugees. Instead people are kept away from ‘Fortress Europe‘ by newly built walls and are generally restricted in their mobility – we oppose those measures.