18th Mar 2018


Letting people drown is not an EU value

  • EU's Operation Sophia at work in Mediterranean (Photo: EEAS)

595. A nice round number, right? It refers to the dead and missing in the central Mediterranean, mostly between Libya and Italy, in the first three months of 2017. The known dead died from drowning, exposure, hypothermia, and suffocation. Horrible, agonising deaths.

24,474. This is a nicer number. It refers to the women, men, and children who made it safely to Italy this year, all of them plucked from flimsy, overcrowded boats by European vessels. Many were rescued by teams from nongovernmental organisations patrolling international waters just off Libya, where most migrant boats depart.

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  • 'Rescuers working for charities are helping plug the gap left by EU member states' (Photo: MSF)

Those groups - including Doctors Without Borders (MSF, for the French acronym), Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), SOS Mediterranee, Proactiva Open Arms, Sea-Watch and others - are now being accused of encouraging boat migration. Or worse, of collusion with people smugglers.

The EU border agency, Frontex, has suggested that the presence of rescue operations by nongovernmental groups is a pull factor, encouraging people to take the dangerous journey in hopes of rescue.

A prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, has opened an inquiry into the funding streams for these groups, indicating a suspicion that they may be profiting illicitly from the movement of people in search of safety and better lives.

This is the latest cruel twist in the EU’s response to boat migration from Libya. It reflects concern over increasing numbers of people embarking from Libya, the strain on the reception system in Italy and beyond, and the rise of xenophobic populism in many EU countries.

But blaming the lifesavers ignores history, reality, and basic morality.

As MSF’s Aurelie Ponthieu explained, the NGO group rescuers are not “the cause but a response” to an ongoing human tragedy.

Even before the significant increase in numbers in 2015, tens of thousands of people have been risking their lives in unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean for decades; almost 14,000 have died or been reported missing since 2011.

After the October 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, in which 368 people lost their lives, there was increased talk among organisations about mounting rescue missions in the central Mediterranean.

In 2015, that became a reality, in large part because the end of the Italian navy’s humanitarian rescue mission Mare Nostrum and the gaps in its poor replacement by the EU border agency Frontex.

People embark on these dangerous journeys for myriad reasons; they are fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty, and moving toward freedom, safety, and opportunity.

Both pull and push factors are always in play when people are on the move. Insofar as more freedoms, liberties, and policies grounded in respect for human rights - including vital rescue-at-sea operations - serve as pull factors, these should not be sacrificed in the name of limiting migration.

The presence of EU vessels just off Libyan waters has changed the dynamic of boat migration.

There is more hope of rescue, and smugglers have adopted even more unscrupulous tactics like using inflatable (throw-away) Zodiacs instead of wooden boats and providing only enough fuel to reach international waters.

But to question the humanitarian imperative of rescue at sea is to discard our most basic respect for life. And the logic of those who criticise the rescue operations as a pull factor is that the groups should stop rescuing people and let them drown to discourage others from coming.

That is no more moral than planting landmines on a border to discourage people from crossing it.

It is telling, and encouraging, that the EU’s naval Operation Sophia, an anti-smuggling operation named after a baby girl rescued by one its vessels in 2015, boasts of saving thousands of lives.

The officers from numerous European navies deployed in the operation have participated in numerous rescue missions, and shepherded many exhausted, grateful people to safe harbours.

Neither Operation Sophia nor Frontex have search-and-rescue at the core of their missions, but they are bound by the laws of the sea and the humanity of their crews to rescue those whose lives are in peril.

There are steps beyond rescue that can mitigate the situation. Trapping people in unsafe countries like Libya is not the answer.

But increasing safe and legal routes for refugees to seek protection in Europe and tackling the human rights abuse and poverty that drives migration can help.

And in the meantime, there should be an end to recriminations and accusations and treating like criminals the rescuers working for charities, who are helping plug the gap left by EU member states.

What is needed is more mutual trust, better coordination, and active EU patrols in locations where most boats enter into distress to ensure timely rescues.

Judith Sunderland is associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO

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