Europe's shame: criminalising Mediterranean search and rescue missions


Picture of Inma Vazquez
Inma Vazquez

Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) Representative to the EU and NATO

In December 2018, Aquarius, a vessel operated by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Mediterranée (SOS), was forced to cease all rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. It was one of the last NGO vessels operating in the Mediterranean. The real ‘final’ blow was a criminal investigation opened by an Italian prosecutor citing waste trafficking. Prior to that Gibraltar and Panama had removed the vessel’s authorisation to use their countries’ flag.

According to a report published by the European Fundamental Rights Agency, eight NGOs carrying out Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Central Mediterranean have faced criminal investigations. Accusations of malfeasance, which could result in up to 20 years of prison, include alleged collusion with traffickers. In the past two years, at least seven vessels have been pre-emptively seized or blocked at ports in Italy, Malta and Spain.

It is unlikely that any of the accusations will go beyond judicial proceedings. In fact, some have already been discontinued and only one of the seizures has been confirmed by a court. Regardless, the harm has already been done: the NGOs’ dedicated SAR capacities are almost completely dismantled and their reputations have been damaged.

Europe’s narrative has demonised NGO Search and Rescue operations as ‘the’ key pull factor for irregular migration, as well as feeding smuggling and trafficking networks. But this narrative leaves out that, prior to the NGOs, SAR action was led by states. In 2015, NGOs had to step in when Italy decided to discontinue their Mare Nostrum operation. The obsession to stop any rescue has been taken to such an extreme that it has led to the freezing of the naval assets in Operation Sophia, the EU’s military mission created precisely with the mandate of combatting trafficking. Even Frontex patrolling has been undermined by the political climate created by such allegations.

Politically, the EU deems it too risky to have vessels at sea as, with the closure of the Italian ports, every rescue operation is confronted to a shameful spectacle of embarrassing ad hoc negotiations to find a ‘Good Samaritan country’. And meanwhile, the EU Council has been unable to agree on a disembarkation/relocation plan or on any of the legal texts of the ‘Common Asylum Reform Package’.

Europe’s narrative has demonised NGO Search and Rescue operations as ‘the’ key pull factor for irregular migration

The result: Search and Rescue in the Central Mediterranean has been left in the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG). A recent factsheet from the European Commission explicitly states that “…the EU thinks it is preferable to work with the Libyan Coast Guard to enhance their capacity to carry out search and rescue operations in their zone of responsibility, where most search and rescue incidents occur”. It is important to note that enabling the Libyan authorities to declare a SAR zone was indeed one of the objectives of the EU Trust Fund’s (EUTF) grant to the Italian Ministry of Interior.

Allowing operations to be carried out by the LCG was the EU’s preferred option. And yet, in the first three months of 2019, the mortality ratio has literally skyrocketed to almost 1 death for every 11 people departed. During the same period last year, that ratio was 1 in 29. LCG seems unable to cover the large SAR zone, and their irresponsible and aggressive behaviour, including not answering radio calls is still a problem. The LCG has even fired at MSF teams.

Migrants who are disembarked in Libya are sent to official detention centres which are rife with abuse and exploitation. The EU has no leverage to halt arbitrary detention in Libya, and has been unable to convince Libyan authorities to provide unhindered access to humanitarian organisations. Desperate pleas to ensure that upon disembarkation the most vulnerable – pregnant women, infants, victims of torture and the sickly – are at least spared from detention, are ignored. In Libya there are simply no alternatives to detention.

As of March 2019, there are no EU vessels involved in rescue activities

The most vulnerable are trapped inside Libya. Since 2015, the IOM has repatriated 40,000 people but many others – paradoxically those who are entitled to protection under UNHCR rules – have no way out. Today, they represent 75% of the people in official detention centres. Since September 2017, the UNHCR has only managed to evacuate 3,016 people out of Libya. Most of them are in Niger, where they are trapped once again by long resettlement procedures.

While these unfortunate people suffer severe abuses in detention centres, EU member states lack the will to scale up safe and legal options to migrate to Europe. In September 2017, the UNCHR called for 40,000 resettlement places. In March 2019, states worldwide only managed to pledge a meagre 5,456 places.

MSF has experienced first-hand how difficult it is to convince states to host these people. The organisation has engaged in negotiations to evacuate a group of 150 people who escaped clandestine captivity. They were mainly Eritreans who escaped gunfire and were subjected to trafficking, abuse, torture, and ill-treatment. Many in this group were minors without any family protection. After several months, the group was eventually evacuated to Niger but it will be a long time before they are free to travel to the host countries.

In 2015, President Juncker argued that “it was a serious mistake to bring the Mare Nostrum operation to an end. It cost human lives”. As of March 2019, there are no EU vessels involved in rescue activities and the NGOs humanitarian action has been severely undermined. Yes, these decisions cost human lives and put at additional risk the lives of those trapped in Libya, the most vulnerable and those entitled to protection. Moreover, European states have failed to respond to UNHCR or MSF’s call for evacuation. This is a shameful page in Europe’s history.

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