The Malta Independent 17 June 2019, Monday

Ongoing criminalisation of NGOs is an urgent cause for concern – MOAS

Julian Bonnici Sunday, 29 July 2018, 10:30 Last update: about 12 months ago

Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) – an international NGO based in Malta that provides aid and emergency medical relief to migrants and refugees around the world – a has drawn attention to the continuing criminalisation by many European countries of NGOs who operate in the Mediterranean, saying that this is an urgent cause for concern, while stressing that, as a humanitarian organisation, it would not comment on political developments in any particular country.

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This summer the Mediterranean has become the centre of diplomatic issues concerning migration with the rise of an anti-migrant populist coalition government in Italy, who has shown open hostility to the current status quo and international obligations.

Malta has been steadfast in standing its ground on the issue, with Prime Minister Muscat employing aggressive tactics – which, in the face of growing tension, have been supported by the EU – by blocking NGOs from entering or exiting Maltese ports, grounding an NGO’s spotter plane and only accepting the entry of a vessel on the establishment of an ad-hoc agreement ensuring the relocation of the migrants between eight European states.

On an EU-level there have been increasing calls for a stronger regulation of NGOs.

Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, MOAS said that “it calls on all governments, regardless of political affiliation, to help restore the sense of humanity that has been lost in current debates on migration, and to acknowledge that saving lives must take precedence over winning votes.”

Asked to comment on the situation in Malta, considering that this is where their headquarters are based, the NGO refrained from doing so saying that they “acknowledge that cooperation between political establishments and non-governmental institutions is a complex issue, and [they] seek to remain impartial insofar as possible.”

While MOAS was one of the first NGOs to launch a Search & Rescue mission in the Central Mediterranean in 2014, and has rescued over 40,000 people between August 2014 and August 2017, they are not currently running a maritime operation in Malta.

“We are still committed to raising awareness of the increasing dangers facing those who seek to reach Europe by sea and advocating the creation of alternative routes that are both safe and legal,” it said.

Last September, MOAS moved its operations to Bangladesh in response to the plight of the Rohingya people, who fled neighbouring Myanmar en masse after the start of a violent government-led crackdown in August 2017.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority who are denied citizenship in majority-Buddhist Myanmar.

MOAS, which currently runs two aid stations in the area, said that it has provided vital medical care to 69,000 people to date.

Pressed on reports that MOAS had moved its operations after Sicilian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro opened a probe into the financing of NGOs (he has yet to open an official inquiry), MOAS reiterated that they were responding to an urgent call made by the Pope, as they had done with the Mediterranean in 2014.

The NGO was also asked to comment on recent reports detailing claims by Emergency – another NGO – that MOAS had stopped leasing them one of their vessels after receiving a €400,000 offer from the Red Cross, despite having agreed with the NGO that they would lease the ship for between €180,000 and €230,000.

“At the time of our partnership with Emergency, which was supporting our work aboard the Topaz Responder, we were trying to raise funds to continue our life-saving SAR operations for as long as possible. All funds paid to MOAS by Emergency in 2016 were used to support the running of maritime operations and the cost of leasing the ship, since MOAS did not, in fact, own the Topaz Responder. It is therefore incorrect to say that Emergency was renting a vessel from MOAS.

“Unfortunately, Emergency did not have the necessary funding to support our operations at the time. The Italian Red Cross, already working in partnership with MOAS aboard the M/Y Phoenix, was able to step in and fill this gap.

“As always, we were guided by our founding principle of alleviating human suffering and, in the case of our maritime operations, mitigating the loss of life at sea,” it said.

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