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ABOARD THE AQUARIUS RESCUE SHIP (Reuters) - Anne Marie Loof has devoted her life to humanitarian work but says she understands why some Italians have started painting people like her as villains.
"They feel overwhelmed," said Loof, who works for Doctors without Borders (MSF), in a clinic aboard the Aquarius rescue ship which plies the Mediterranean to save migrants off the Libyan coast. "They need a scapegoat. They need to blame someone, and we are a soft target."
Almost four years into a migration crisis that has brought more than half a million people by boat from North Africa to Italy and turned the Mediterranean into a watery grave for 13,000 people, Italian political parties and media have found a new target for blame: the aid workers who rescue people at sea.
In February, a prominent prosecutor launched a fact-finding probe accusing aid groups of being in cahoots with smugglers.
With an election looming, the accusations were taken up by the main opposition political parties, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right Northern League. Parliament launched its own investigation.
The critics accuse aid workers of operating a "taxi service", effectively aiding smugglers by providing the final leg of the journey: taking people off unsafe boats near the coast of Libya and bringing them to Italy.
Catania Chief Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, who launched the probe, has gone even further, suggesting the rescuers are being paid off by the smugglers themselves.
"Some NGOs could be financed by traffickers and I know there has been direct contact" between them, Zuccaro told state TV Rai in April.
Since he made the public allegations, though without opening a criminal investigation or presenting any evidence, media have turned on the rescuers with fury.
"Pact between NGOs and traffickers, the government knew everything and now it wants to cover it up," read an April front page of Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the brother of four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The rescue workers say the willingness of many Italians to believe such accusations is a sign of frustration from a public that sees no sign that boat arrivals are abating.
"I know people like simple answers. So it's simple just to say: 'It's the NGOs that are bringing people in.' End of story," said Marcella Kraay, project coordinator with MSF on board the Aquarius, which is run jointly with charity SOS Mediterranee.
"But the situation is much more complex than that... Why do they have to take this horrendous journey? There are a lot of problems and they're big and complex. The focus should be how are we going to solve that and not shoot the messenger, which is actually what's happening."
MSF, SOS Mediterranee and the other rescue operations have repeatedly denied wrongdoing and say they have no contact with Libya-based smugglers. Most of their money comes from private donations, and many have offered to share their funding details with the Catania court, saying they have nothing to hide.
But the accusations have clearly taken a toll in public opinion. A poll taken two months after Zuccaro's allegations showed only a third of Italians trust the rescue charities, while half did not. A separate survey by pollster SWG said more people viewed migrants as a problem rather than as victims of a humanitarian crisis, a reversal from a year earlier.
"Migration is not ending and is not controlled, and this weighs a lot on public opinion," said Maurizio Pessato, president of SWG. "It will be a decisive issue going into next year's election."
Virtually all the migrants picked up by charities are brought to Italy instead of Libya, which is considered unsafe, and about half ask for asylum. Almost 200,000 asylum seekers are living in the country's state-funded shelters.
As the Aquarius edged out of the port of Catania on May 13 on its way to the waters off Libya, a small motor boat carrying a handful of protesters shouting "No more illegal migrants!" pulled along side. The far-right Identitarians group behind the protest says it wants to preserve Europe's national identities against a migrant "invasion".
The Italian coastguard intervened, forcing the boat to retreat, but the stunt was streamed online by Canadian conservative activist Lauren Southern.
"The monster is coming," she says of the Aquarius, which "has been illegally bringing in migrants from the Libyan ocean for the last while and they're just heading out again to bring in more illegal migrants and we are going to stop them."
The Identitarians have raised more than 70,000 euros ($78,100) to equip a vessel and send it to sea, Lorenzo Fiato, one of organisers, told Reuters.
"The aim is to take migrants back to Libya and not bring them to Italy," Fiato said. "It's an NGO ship in reverse."
In February, Italy and the EU signed an a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli pledging millions of euros, equipment and training to fight people smuggling, run U.N.-managed migrant camps and bolster the coastguard.
The aim is to block migrants in Libya just as they were stopped in Turkey after the EU brokered a deal with Ankara last year. That arrangement mostly put a halt to the "Balkan route", the other main route into Europe, which saw around a million people take boats from Turkey to Greece in 2015, and then make their way north through the Balkans to rich countries like Germany.
But the accord with Tripoli has yet to have a similar impact slowing boat departures across the Mediterranean from Libya. On the contrary, smugglers are sending migrants at a record pace.
This year 71,000 boat migrants, enough to fill 170 jumbo jets, have been rescued and brought to Italy, a 26 percent increase on the same time period last year. Two thousand are already estimated to have drowned this year, with the peak summer season for making the voyage still to come.
The role of charities in the rescues has grown as Italian and EU militaries have pulled back from Libyan coast.
In 2014, when Italy ran its own search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, charities carried out less than one percent of all rescues. So far this year, they have carried out more than a third of rescues, according to Italy's coastguard, which coordinates all the rescues from Rome.
EU border agency Frontex and its anti-smuggling mission Sophia make a point of patrolling at a distance from the Libyan coast, arguing that if they come too close to shore they encourage smugglers.
The charities say that leaves them no choice but to operate closer to Libya to rescue people who would otherwise be abandoned to drown. The already unseaworthy migrant boats are badly overloaded and would not make it to Italy before sinking.
"Last year on one day there were 10,000 people who left Libya and went to sea," said Nick Romaniuk, a member of the rescue team on the Aquarius, as it steamed towards Italy with 560 migrants safely on board.
"That means if the boats go out and there's no one there to save them, potentially 10,000 people could die in a single day. I don't think that's a chance we can take."
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Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli and Antonella Cinelli in Rome; editing by Peter Graff