Inside Story

Waving, but also drowning

The rising death toll in the Mediterranean reflects a deeper problem with European policy towards irregular migrants

Klaus Neumann 24 July 2018 3745 words

Activists placing a life vest bearing the words “Open Arms” on the Christopher Columbus statue in Barcelona, Spain, last month, to draw attention to the loss of lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

For every six migrants who survived the sea journey from Libya to Italy last month, at least one died. The International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants project recorded 564 deaths in the central Mediterranean during June, noting that the figures were “minimum estimates.” This is the highest total since November 2016, and represents three-quarters of the migrant deaths recorded worldwide last month.

What’s to blame for the rising death toll? Three explanations are commonly given: the obstruction and criminalisation of private search-and-rescue missions, the absence of a concerted European effort to rescue migrants at sea, and the policies of the new government in Rome. Italy has closed its ports not only to search-and-rescue ships operated by non-government organisations but also — albeit only temporarily — to commercial vessels that pick up migrants, and navy ships engaged in the European Union’s Operation Sophia, whose ships have patrolled the Mediterranean since 2015, mainly to combat people smuggling. Earlier this month, Italy’s new far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini even threatened to prevent the Diciotti, an Italian coastguard vessel, from disembarking sixty-seven migrants at a Sicilian port.

The central Mediterranean route has arguably become more perilous since Salvini, the hard-line federal secretary of the Lega Nord, was sworn in as deputy prime minister and interior minister on 1 June. Lega Nord campaigned strongly on an anti-immigration and anti-migrant platform during the election, and the openly xenophobic Salvini is determined to fulfil its campaign promises. Within days of his appointment, he announced the closure of Italy’s ports, arguing that Italy had long enough carried the can for its European partners.

But it would be wrong to solely blame Italy’s new government. Other European countries have been every bit as anxious to reduce the number of irregular migrants arriving at Europe’s southern borders, and Malta has also gone as far as closing its ports to ships operated by NGOs. If it were up to the Austrian government, Europe’s external borders would be impenetrable even for people fleeing war or persecution — which is especially significant because Austria assumed the European Union’s rotating presidency on 1 July and is in a position to set the EU’s agenda, if only for six months.

Italy itself was a most reluctant recipient of rescued migrants well before the Lega became responsible for the government’s policies. It has been clamping down on private search-and-rescue missions since July 2017, when it demanded that NGOs operating in the central Mediterranean sign a code of conduct requiring them, for example, to “receive on board… upon request by the competent National Authorities, judicial police officers for information and evidence gathering with a view to conducting investigations related to migrant smuggling and/or trafficking in human beings.” All this is a very long way from Operation Mare Nostrum, the Italian government’s response to two mass drownings near Lampedusa in October 2013, which resulted in the rescue of some 100,000 migrants over a twelve-month period.

In fact, an excellent recent report by Forensic Oceanography, which is highly critical of Italian and European policies and practices in the central Mediterranean, is titled “Mare Clausum,” closed sea, in reference to exceptional practices in the Middle Ages that challenged the Mare Nostrum approach that had endured since the Roman empire.

The swearing in of the new Italian government — a coalition between the former regionalist, right-wing Lega Nord and the new-right populist (and ostensibly anti-establishment) Movimento 5 Stelle, or Five Star — has nevertheless marked the beginning of a new chapter in Europe’s approach to irregular migrants.

That became obvious on 10 June, when the Aquarius, a former German coastguard vessel jointly operated by the German–Italian–French–Swiss NGO SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières, was barred from entering an Italian port. On 9 and 10 June, the ship had rescued 629 migrants in international waters off the Libyan coast in an operation coordinated by Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.

Although Malta’s prime minister initially tweeted that Salvini’s instructions “manifestly go against international rules,” his government followed the Italian lead and denied the ship’s request to dock at a Maltese port. In the end, the Spanish government allowed the Aquarius to enter the port of Valencia. Because the ship was kept waiting in the waters between Italy and Malta and then took several days to reach the Spanish coast, a full week passed between the migrants’ rescue and their eventual disembarkation. The Aquarius has not yet returned to the search-and-rescue zone near the Libyan coast, and is currently in Marseille. Its operators say it will eventually resume its role, but they are hesitant to give the go-ahead, because they are afraid not only of a repeat of the recent odyssey but also of worse scenarios, including a confiscation of the ship.

Their misgivings are well founded. Later in June, the Lifeline, a ship operated by the German NGO Mission Lifeline, with 234 rescued migrants on board, was also denied access to an Italian port and, initially, also prevented from docking at Valetta in Malta. Only when eight European countries — Malta, France, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium — agreed to accept passengers whose asylum claims were successful did the Maltese government relent. But the Maltese authorities have since seized the Lifeline and initiated legal proceedings against its captain. A few days later, they also detained the ship and aeroplane operated by another German NGO, Sea Watch. It is probably no accident that Sea Watch, Mission Lifeline, SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières were among the NGOs that refused to sign the Italian code of conduct last year.

Of the eight NGOs conducting search-and-rescue missions in the central Mediterranean last year, only one is currently active, the Spanish organisation Proactiva Open Arms. Italian authorities impounded its ship, the Open Arms, in March, accusing its crew of people smuggling, but an Italian court ordered its release a month later. When the Open Arms rescued sixty migrants in June, Malta and Italy once again closed their ports. On 2 July, the ship was finally able to dock in Barcelona.

When the Open Arms next returned to international waters, near the Libyan coast, it came across a woman clinging to the wreckage of a destroyed rubber boat, and two bodies. She reported that she had been left behind when the Libyan coastguard had rescued the boat’s other passengers and that a passing cargo ship had not stopped to help her. The Open Arms has since taken the survivor and the bodies to the Spanish island of Majorca.

While Proactiva’s claims have been contested by Salvini, and by the Libyan authorities and a German TV journalist on board the Libyan coastguard vessel, the harrowing images posted by the NGO have directed critical attention to the role assigned to Libya. The European Union and Italy have provided the Libyan government with generous funding, training and ships to establish a coastguard that the Europeans expect to prevent migrants from leaving Libya and to take back those who are — depending on one’s perspective — caught or rescued within Libyan territorial waters. Rescue operations near the Libyan coast, which were coordinated until recently by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, are now led by the Libyans themselves. The (European) architects of this new arrangement want all migrants rescued near Libya — including those picked up in international waters and not rescued by the Libyans themselves — to be disembarked at a Libyan port.

That is highly problematic for two reasons. First, lavish European funding notwithstanding, the Libyan coastguard doesn’t yet have the capacity to patrol along the entire Libyan coastline and coordinate complex search-and-rescue operations involving commercial ships, European naval vessels and ships operated by NGOs. It also has to be mindful of not treading on the toes of powerful militias that control sections of the coast.

Second, and more importantly, the migrants who decide to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean do so not least because Libya is unsafe. Most of them have had first-hand experience of Libyan prisons or detention centres, where migrants are locked up and mistreated to extort money from their relatives back home or in Europe. Torture and rape are common. The human rights violations experienced by migrants have been documented in numerous recent reports by Human Rights Watch and similar organisations. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have also highlighted the cruelties inflicted on irregular migrants in Libya.

As a Refugees International field report from June 2017 observed, “Some of the refugees and migrants interviewed by RI in Italy said they had been working in Libya and had not planned to travel to Europe. However, they made the journey to Italy to escape the violence in Libya.” The same organisation produced another report in April, after the European Union had become more reliant on the Libyan authorities to prevent migrants from leaving for Europe, finding that “European engagement has failed to significantly improve the situation.”

An Amnesty International report, also from last year, had this to say:

Refugees and migrants are routinely exposed to human rights violations committed by Libyan officials and security forces and abuses at the hands of armed groups and criminal gangs, who are often working in close cooperation and to mutual financial advantage. They suffer torture and other ill-treatment and arbitrary detention in appalling conditions, extortion, forced labour and killings at the hands of Libyan officials, militias and smugglers. In a lawless country, refugees and migrants have become a resource to be exploited — a commodity around which an entire industry has grown.

Even the German foreign office has raised concerns about the human rights situation in Libya. In a report partially leaked early last year, most of which has since been made public under freedom of information legislation, German diplomats pointed to “authentic” evidence of the torture, rape and routine executions of migrants and described “conditions similar to those in concentration camps.” This hasn’t stopped the German government from backing European attempts to outsource border controls to the Libyan regime.

It is in Germany that the criminalisation of private search-and-rescue missions has resonated particularly loudly. That’s partly because at least four of the ships that operated in the Mediterranean last year were funded entirely by German organisations, and partly because support for search-and-rescue missions is perceived as a commitment to an alternative Europe — one that is neither afraid of strangers nor anxious to seal its external borders.

Support for search-and-rescue operations is also seen as a way of symbolically snubbing the far right, which has grown in strength not least because its leaders have blamed refugees and asylum seekers for all ills. The Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD, Germany’s largest opposition party, has long tried to equate private search-and-rescue missions with people-smuggling networks. While AfD politicians speak of “so-called refugees” and “so-called rescuers,” and label the latter criminals, their supporters sometimes go one step further. At a far-right Pegida protest in Dresden last month, prominent Pegida activist Siegfried Däbritz referred to the local NGO Mission Lifeline, whose ship was at the time trying to find a port to disembark the 234 people it had rescued: “You must have heard what’s happened to our beloved Dresden human-smuggling organisation,” whereupon the crowd chanted: “Absaufen! Absaufen!” (Drown! Drown!).

Last week I attended two panel discussions about search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The first followed the screening of the documentary Iuventa in a Berlin cinema. This fascinating Italian–German co-production tells the story of a group of young people, most of them Germans in their teens and early twenties, who formed the NGO Jugend Rettet (Youths Saving Lives) in mid 2015 to raise money for a private search-and-rescue mission and raise awareness about the humanitarian catastrophe happening in the Mediterranean. With the help of crowdfunding they bought and fitted out a Dutch fishing trawler, christened it Iuventa, and used it to rescue some 14,000 migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya. The Italian authorities seized the ship in August 2017, claiming that it had been used to ferry illegal migrants to Italy and that its crew was colluding with people smugglers. (Jugend Rettet had refused to sign the code of conduct I mentioned earlier.) Attempts to procure the Iuventa’s release through the Italian courts have failed.

The previous day, some 200 mainly young people had turned up to listen to a Greens member of parliament, a lawyer and a representative of SOS Méditerranée at a forum hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is aligned with the Greens. Here, too, the discussion focused on the question, “What next?” On both occasions, the mood in the audience was ambivalent. There was a lot of pessimism about the prospects for human rights in a Europe run by the likes of Salvini, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, where far-right populist movements seem to dictate the political agenda. How much worse could it possibly get? (After the film screening, an Australian doctor who had sailed on the Iuventa pointed out that Europe’s current policies vis-à-vis irregular migrants were almost as bad as Australia’s — which suggests that in Europe we haven’t hit rock bottom yet.)

But I was also surprised by the level of optimism about civil society’s capacity to effect a change of policies. Perhaps this makes sense in a country that would not have coped with the arrival of over a million asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016 if civil society had not come to the rescue of government agencies evidently out of their depth. But some of that optimism was also informed by the sudden surge of public support for private search-and-rescue operations.

In late June, when the Lifeline could not find a port to land at, a group of activists formed the Bündnis Seebrücke (Alliance Sea Bridge). Organisers expected 800 people to come to its first rally in Berlin on 7 July — 12,000 turned up. Since then, the Seebrücke movement has spread across the country, and even to smaller towns. On Friday last week, 1000 people demonstrated in Bonn and 800 in Kiel; on Saturday, 700 protested in Düsseldorf, 250 in Augsburg, 500 in Stuttgart and 2000 in Bielefeld. Given that it’s the height of summer, these are significant numbers. Rallies in Hannover, Dresden, Koblenz, Münster, Hamburg, Kaiserslautern, Aachen and numerous smaller towns are planned for next weekend.

“It ought to be possible to mobilise not 12,000 or 20,000, but half a million people in support of the search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean,” a member of the audience said after the screening of Iuventa. At the event hosted by the Böll Foundation, a woman remarked that the momentum of the Seebrücke movement reminded her of the early days of the peace movement in the 1980s. No doubt such statements reflect wishful thinking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Seebrücke demonstrations turned out to be more than a one-off and overall modest articulation of discontent.

As in the days of the peace movement, the comparatively uncontroversial demand to save lives in the Mediterranean could bring together people whose politics have otherwise little in common: left-wing activists and the churches, for instance. In fact, while the largest Bündnis Seebrücke rally so far attracted 12,000 supporters, a certain well-known Vatican-based proponent of search-and-rescue missions had a live audience of 25,000 last Sunday when he drew attention to recent shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and demanded “respect for the rights and dignity of all.” (Incidentally, the Pope could yet play a role. A representative of the Council of German Protestant Churches, which has co-funded the Sea Watch plane grounded by the Maltese authorities, has raised the possibility of the Vatican, a sovereign state, requesting the release of the plane.)

In any case, the opportunity to support an evidently good cause, which, according to a recent opinion poll, has the support of three-quarters of Germans, is providing a welcome focus for those troubled by the rapid rise of the far right and the Merkel government’s attempts to distance itself from the Willkommenskultur that marked the public response to refugees and asylum seekers in 2015.

The supporters of search-and-rescue operations are not only incensed by the far right. On 12 July the respectable liberal weekly Die Zeit published two articles under the heading “Oder soll man es lassen?” (Or should one refrain from doing it?). The subheading explained that the paper wanted to discuss whether it is “legitimate” for private organisations to rescue refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. One of two articles published under the headline was highly critical of NGOs such as Mission Lifeline and Sea Watch. But the author’s arguments were not perceived to be the problem; rather, it was the weekly’s question about whether it was legitimate to save lives.

Die Zeit’s unreserved front-page apology a week later, and the loud and unanimous condemnation of an inappropriate question by all other liberal media outlets — from the news magazine Der Spiegel to the Munich-based national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung — obscured two phenomena. First, many Europeans, including many Germans, do think and say what the unfortunate headline suggested as one possible option, namely that irregular migrants trying to reach Europe by boat should be left to drown, if only to deter others from attempting the same journey.

Second, although the issue is incredibly simple it should not be oversimplified. The SOS Méditerranée representative at the panel discussion hosted by the Böll Foundation put it well. For her, she said, it doesn’t matter why somebody decides to embark on the journey to Europe; once they have done so, and risk drowning, she has the moral obligation to rescue them if she can. What also makes the issue simple is the fact that the main claims put forward by critics of rescue missions — namely that there is a causal link between the number of people who leave Libya and the number of NGOs operating off the Libyan coast, and that the NGOs are effectively providing a “taxi service” for the smugglers — are false. The available evidence — detailed in a contribution to Oxford University’s Border Criminologies blog published last year, for example — strongly suggests that NGOs’ search-and-rescue missions do not constitute a pull factor. There is also no evidence for collusion between smugglers and rescuers.

But the matter is nevertheless complex, because there is no evident causal link between the likelihood of rescue at sea and the number of casualties. Migrants continued to drown in large numbers during Operation Mare Nostrum. Fewer migrants have drowned in the first three weeks of July than in the first three weeks of June, when three ships run by NGOs were still patrolling the waters off the Libyan coast.

To be fair, the NGOs operating in the Mediterranean did not set out simply to rescue as many people as they could; for most of them, these operations were only part of a larger agenda. They wanted to shame the European Union into establishing a well-funded search-and-rescue agency. They failed. But that still leaves the question of whether it ought to be the responsibility of the European Union and its individual member states to ensure that nobody drowns in the Mediterranean.

The NGOs also wanted to spotlight the human tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean. They largely failed in that, as well. “We rescued 27,000 people, and nobody paid attention,” a woman from SOS Méditerranée observed during one of the panel discussions. Given the current level of attention, at least in Germany and Spain, it will be interesting to see how closely Europeans follow the journey of SOS Méditerranée’s Aquarius when it embarks on a new rescue mission in coming weeks.

Spotlights, and an audience that pays attention to what they illuminate, are much needed. But the focus on what is happening in the Mediterranean sometimes suggests that the main issue is the lack of a safe passage from the African coast to Europe. Much less attention is paid to what is happening, out of sight, in Libya and Algeria.

While Salvini’s policies are undoubtedly informed by racism, or at least the attempt to appeal to racist elements in the Italian electorate, he has a point. For many years, Italy was left in the lurch. With the notable exception of the current Spanish prime minister, the European politicians who recently complained about Salvini’s heartlessness have been reluctant to accommodate irregular migrants rescued in the Mediterranean and to establish whether they are owed protection. Both the idea that Italy is the main culprit, and the suggestion that irregular migration to Europe could be stopped if only migrants could be prevented from departing Libya are naive.

Libya is only one part of a larger picture. Smugglers vary the products they offer if conditions change. As the chance to be rescued close to the Libyan coast and not to be returned to Libya decreases, the boats chosen by smugglers are likely to be better able to cover longer distances. The Italian government’s announcement that it would not let migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean land has led to an increase in departures from Morocco and arrivals in Spain. For June 2018, the Missing Migrants project counted 6926 migrant arrivals in the western Mediterranean (three times as many as last year), compared with 10,297 in the central Mediterranean (two-fifths of last year’s figure).

Finally, it’s important to remember that the commitment to rescuing a fellow human being who is drowning is only one relevant moral response. Another has to do with the underlying reasons why people feel compelled to leave their homes and risk their lives in an attempt to reach Europe. An exhibition showing currently at the German Historical Museum in Berlin highlights the importance of the sea for Europe, from the Greek colonisation some 2800 years ago to today. The comparatively small part of the exhibition that deals with today’s migration across the Mediterranean has the appearance of a belated addition. This is regrettable, because a history museum would have been the right place to explain today’s irregular migration in the context of a longer history that includes, for example, slavery, the exploitation of natural resources, unfair terms of trade, the sale of arms and the support of murderous regimes. Such a history could prompt discussions about moral obligations that exist well before a person is about to drown. ●