Global Human Rights Defence

Italy: NGOs Guiding Migrant Salvage Boats in the Mediterranean Face a Preliminary Hearing in Sicily

Italy: NGOs Guiding Migrant Salvage Boats in the Mediterranean Face a Preliminary Hearing in Sicily
Rescue ships arriving in Lampedusa, Sicily. © UNHCR via Flickr, 2011.

Author: Laura Libertini

Department: Euope Team


On August 2nd, 2017, the Iuventa rescue ship, under the German NGO Jugend Rettet, had rescued two people after the solicitation of Italian authorities and were asked to head to the port of Lampedusa, Sicily. However, four coastguard vessels with flashing blue lights guided the Iuventa to the dock where the media was waiting upon their arrival. The crew was not aware they were under investigation until one year later. Today, almost five years since the ship was confiscated, four members of the Iuventa are brought in front of the Italian Courts (Giuffrida & Rankin, 2022). In addition, between 2016 and 2017, volunteers from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Save the Children rescue boats were accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorised entry into Italy” (Euractiv, 2022). They faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily, Italy, on May 21st, 2022, over an alleged conspiracy with human traffickers after a controversial inquiry involving mass wiretapping. Trapani judge, Samuele Corso, must determine whether to go forward with the trial after a five-year investigation embroiled in controversy due to the widespread wiretap of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what is believed to be a politically motivated attempt to halt sea rescues.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the Central Mediterranean is the deadliest migratory route in the world, with over 17,000 victims and disappearances since 2014, recorded by the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. The disappearances are primarily due  to the duration of overseas journeys and the increasingly dangerous trafficking patterns, discrepancies in search-and-rescue capability and constraints on the lifesaving effort of NGOs (IOM, 2022). The charity organisations denied ever talking or conspiring with smugglers, who in some cases are armed and can be spotted roaming near rescues in an effort to fetch valuable engine machines from migrant boats. Save the Children told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that it “strongly rejects” the charges, similar to MSF, which hoped that a “period of criminalisation of humanitarian aid” would rapidly end  (Euractiv, 2022).

The accusations

The different NGOs are accused of carrying migrants to Europe in cahoots with human smugglers. However, an independent team of experts in digital and oceanography examined photos, videos, weather and oceanic currents, and discovered that the images issued in the Italian media by the prosecution were taken out of context. One photo of an Iuventa rigid rubber boat allegedly hauling a vessel to Libya for reuse by smugglers was proven to be driving north to Europe. The investigation conducted by the UK-based Forensic Architecture revealed that during the trial, “facts are not relied upon to establish a truthful account of events but to construct factual lies” and were lodged in the Italian courthouses (Giuffrida & Rankin, 2022).

Activist Kathrin Schmidt – part of the Iuventa crew – told the Observer before the pre-trial hearing that “everybody knows the pictures and videos of these already unseaworthy, but then overcrowded rubber boat…Stating that there is no necessity to rescue these people is a crime in itself,” adding that “It feels like a never-ending nightmare.” (Giuffrida & Rankin, 2022). The Iuventa’s salvage boat team has saved approximately 14,000 lives in the Mediterranean Sea (Euractiv, 2022). The lawyer representing the Iuventa defendants, Francesca Cancellaro, referred to the case as a unique one due to the investigation’s duration and the employment of undercover agents, inter alia with the “incredible” phone-tapping activity and a trial that involved more than 20 respondents. “I am quite confident that we will show their full innocence,” she stated. “We are talking about people who are involved in rescue operations. They respect the obligation that comes from the law of the sea: the duty to rescue people in distress” (Giuffrida & Rankin, 2022). Trapani’s prosecuting attorney Gabriele Paci reported to the Observer that “the work these organisations do to save people [at sea] is not being contested, but in some cases there are hypotheses, which need to be evaluated by the judge, that there were agreements [made] with traffickers, which meant [the rescuers] then knew when and in which part of the sea [to find migrants]. This is something you cannot do” (Giuffrida & Rankin, 2022).


For observers, this case highlights an alarming propensity to hold the rescuers accountable  while at the same time criminalising people who seek asylum or simply a better living standard in a flourishing part of the world less marked by poverty, corruption and the impacts of climate change (Giuffrida & Rankin, 2022). Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP that she predicted the pre-trial hearings process to last a few months, also in light of the complexity of a case record that counts approximately 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs (Euroactiv, 2022).

As of May 2022, the number of people who went missing while crossing the Central Mediterranean route is 677, while the recorded missing in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean paths are 55 and 64, respectively (IOM, 2022). It can be concluded that what truly matters is assuring safe migration routes, where people can find a way to reach better living conditions without the fear of being killed on the journey and falling into the traps of human traffickers.




Euractiv. (2022, May 23). Sicily judge to weigh trial of migrant rescue NGOs. Euractiv. Retrieved on 31 May 2022 from

Giuffrida, A. & Rankin, J. (2022, May 22). ‘It’s a never-ending nightmare’: crew of refugee rescue ship facing jail. The Guardian. Retrieved on 31 May 2022 from  

International Organisation for Migration. (2022). Missing Migrants Project. International Organisation for Migration. Retrieved on 31 May 2022 from



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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
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Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

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João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

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Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
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prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

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Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.