A Kiwi is among 22 people facing 15 years in prison for rescuing Libyans who found themselves in distress as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to illegally enter Europe.

New Zealand resident Kathrin Schmidt left the country three years ago to work with humanitarian non-governmental agencies in Syria and the Mediterranean Sea but has now found herself among a group being investigated by the Italian authorities.

Schmidt, the head of mission on the Iuventa told the Herald she was among 10 crew members of rescue ship Iuventa being investigated by an Italian prosecutor in Trapani over her role in rescue operations in the central Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast.

Hundreds of thousands of Libyans have attempted to cross the Mediterranean since power became dispersed between different militias and two rival Governments following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

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Schmidt, said if it was a crime to save lives then she would remain "on the right side of the dock".

"If we have to answer in court for having saved these people, Europe has reached political and moral rock bottom."

The Iuventa, run by the organisation Jugend Rettet, was seized by authorities a year ago following an investigation.

Rescued migrants aboard a rubber dinghy off the Libyan coast last month. Photo / AP
Rescued migrants aboard a rubber dinghy off the Libyan coast last month. Photo / AP

The allegations are that the crew members were favouring immigration to Italy while conducting the rescue operations.

However, in a statement, crew members said they rejected the allegations and disagreed with the criminalisation of civil rescue organisations.

The Iuventa started rescues in July 2016 and crew members said the ship had since helped over 14,000 migrants in distress under the eye of the Rome Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre while complying with international and maritime law.

But the crew said they had been unaware the Iuventa had been at the centre of an extensive surveillance operation which saw police bugging the ship's bridge and crew members' mobile devices.

The first they knew of it was when the ship was seized on August 2 last year.

The investigated Iuventa crew claimed the migrant death toll had risen dramatically as three other NGO rescue ships remained frozen in the Maltese port of Valletta and two aircraft were denied permission to launch.

Iuventa captain Pia Klemp said he was appalled to see government agencies working against saving lives at sea, instead of an uproar against failed EU politics and thousands of unnecessary deaths.

"It is absurd to turn the efforts of civilians to uphold international law and human rights into a criminal act."

Rescue workers from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms retrieve the bodies of an adult and a child amid the drifting remains of a destroyed migrant boat off the Libyan coast on July 17. Photo / AP
Rescue workers from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms retrieve the bodies of an adult and a child amid the drifting remains of a destroyed migrant boat off the Libyan coast on July 17. Photo / AP