Interview. The Italian government is accusing Doctors Without Borders of illegally dumping medical waste, apparently part of an ongoing campaign to smear NGOs working to rescue migrants at sea. ‘We would have had to be complete idiots to set up an illegal waste trafficking business.’

Doctors Without Borders responds to Italian waste dumping charge

We spoke with Marco Bertotto, the head of institutional relations of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Italy, about the investigation that is targeting the NGO for alleged trafficking in illegal waste. According to the Italian government, the rescue ship Aquarius, operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, illegally dumped toxic medical waste at European ports.

“The Catania prosecutor’s office decided to conduct investigations. None of us think we are above the decisions of the judiciary, but our activities have been picked apart in every detail for almost two years now. We will defend ourselves by telling our truth. We are not worried, because we have gone through years of storms, and others await us yet,” Bertotto said.

Mr. Bertotto, it is a very serious allegation.

The prosecutor’s office wants to argue that our activities—the activities of an organization that has won the Nobel Peace Prize—are actually aimed at making a profit from waste. We are amazed and outraged. We rely on port operators for waste disposal, and we follow standard procedures. We will investigate if there has been any improper behavior, but, at most, it could only have amounted to some errors. We started sea rescue operations in 2015, and for three years, we have never received any complaint or fine. In May, there was a police operation which seized a truck carrying waste from our ships—no one asked us for any explanations, we only received a notice that the investigation was closed.

Over three years, we have sent out an alternating roster of five ships that have rescued 80,000 people, whom we brought to shore in 200 landings. We would have had to be complete idiots to set up an illegal waste trafficking business, since the operations involving migrant landings are the most carefully watched in Italy: the police, the carabinieri, the financial police, they all come aboard, and nobody ever signaled any problem.

The prosecutor’s office seems to believe that you disposed of contaminated clothing in an illegal manner. But it was Interior Minister Matteo Salvini himself who kept migrants stuck aboard the Diciotti Coast Guard vessel for 10 days in August.

This is an accusation that cannot have any basis in reality. When ships bearing migrants come into port, the yellow flag is raised, and no one is allowed to land before the health authorities have established that there is no danger. Thus, none of the migrants we saved presented any danger at all, let alone their clothes. It is true that we try to give them clean clothes quickly, but that’s not because of any infections: they are wearing clothes soaked with gasoline and sea water, which cause burns, so these need to be removed for the safety of the migrants themselves and not for that of everyone else around them. Furthermore, the survivors in serious condition do not stay aboard the NGO ships, but are instead evacuated by helicopter or by the Coast Guard’s patrol boats.

As our doctor, Gianfranco De Maio, explained, they are accusing us of having exposed the population to diseases that are actually transmitted only via the fecal-oral route: people would have to eat the clothes to get sick; or they could only get ill via the respiratory route or through the blood. The treatment of waste and waste water is central to our activities: for two years now, we have been working in Africa during the Ebola outbreak, and our protocols have been set up based on those used by organizations such as the International Health Organization.

The prosecutor ordered the seizure of the Aquarius.

The Aquarius has not been operational for months, stranded in Marseille earlier this year by government policies that closed the ports and then revoked its flag: first Panama, then Gibraltar cancelled its registration in the Italian Shipping Register under pressure from the Italian government, with support from elsewhere in Europe. Now it flies the Liberian flag, but this only allows us to maintain our insurance while the ship is in the water, and we cannot carry out search and rescue operations.

The prosecutor has also seized bank accounts.

The frozen accounts in Italy actually belong to MSF Holland and MSF Belgium. The problem is not that we are short of cash, but rather the reputational damage. We survive from private contributions alone, and any campaign to discredit us causes the donations to drop by 20 percent, which is harmful to our activities in 72 countries worldwide. The damage alleged by the prosecutor’s office amounts to less than 2 percent of our budget. We stand together with our seven colleagues who are still involved in the investigation. This is yet another directed campaign against us, against solidarity. Our thoughts are with those who are stuck in detention camps in Libya.

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