Migrants try to stay afloat after falling off their rubber dinghy during a rescue operation in the central Mediterranean in international waters some 15 nautical miles off the coast of Zawiya, Libya. (REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

MILAN — Conspiracy theories about migrants crossing the Mediterranean sea and charities rescuing them are gaining traction in Italy, as a well-known prosecutor publicly accused rescuers of “colluding with human traffickers” in order to undermine the country's economy — and several politicians quickly jumped on board, hoping to capitalize on the anti-immigrant sentiment.

Speaking at a popular talk show on Rai 3, a state-owned TV channel, Carmelo Zuccaro, a public prosecutor based in Sicily, accused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that regularly patrol the Mediterranean Sea on search-and-rescue missions of encouraging illegal immigration from Libya. He claimed to know that they “are in contact with human traffickers” and alleged that “some of them could be financed” by smugglers. Zuccaro also hypothesized that the aim behind this alleged collusion might be “the destabilization of the Italian economy.”

Zuccaro is no minor figure. When he was a judge in the 1990s, while authorities were fighting organized crime in Sicily and many of his colleagues were killed in retaliation, he earned recognition for bravely handing down life sentences to bosses behind the Capaci bombing, one of Italy's most infamous Mafia crimes, in which a Sicilian judge, his wife and three anti-terrorist agents were killed.

In an interview with La Repubblica newspaper Friday, Zuccaro admitted he has “no proofs” of the allegations. But he insisted it was his duty to report them, saying that he had heard them from credible sources and thought politicians needed to take action immediately.

Italian authorities scolded Zuccaro for spreading allegations without any proof: Parliament speaker Laura Boldrini called him “irresponsible," while Justice Minister Andrea Orlando accused him of “offending the work of people who save lives.” The High Council of the Judiciary, the governmental body overseeing the ethics of judges and prosecutors, announced a disciplinary hearing in early May.

But populist politicians in the opposition quickly sided with the prosecutor. Luigi Di Maio, a prominent lawmaker of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, praised Zuccaro for having raised “a very important issue.” Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League, said that NGO employees involved in the search-and-rescue missions “should be arrested” and their ships “sunk.”

So far in 2017, more than 37,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea, according to U.N. figures, and more than 1,000 have lost their lives in the journey. In an attempt to save migrants from drowning, the Italian navy is regularly patrolling coasts. So do several NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders (or MSF), Save the Children, the German charity Sea Eye and the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).


As anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in the country, accusations against those involved in the rescue operations have become common, and some politicians are exploiting them to gain consensus ahead of general elections, which are scheduled for 2018 but could be held earlier. Salvini, for instance, has often accused the government of encouraging illegal immigration through the military search-and-rescue missions "Mare Nostrum" and "Triton."

Earlier in April, Di Maio accused NGOs of serving “as taxis” for migrants. It is unclear, however, why Zuccaro has joined in. According to a recent poll, only 34 percent of Italians trust charities' work on search-and-rescue missions.

Last year Frontex, the European Union border agency, raised concerns about contacts between smugglers and some charities and said smugglers gave migrants “clear indications before departure on the precise direction to be followed in order to reach the NGOs’ boats.” But the agency did not accuse charities of colluding with smugglers, let alone being on their payroll.