Shrinking humanitarian space – a fatal reality for search and rescue NGOs in the Central Mediterranean Sea


Picture of David Starke
David Starke

General Director of SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany

Recently, aid workers operating from Turkey to Pakistan to Syria have experienced a shrinking, or even closing, humanitarian space. In response, researchers have sought to give an account of the obstacles faced by humanitarian actors, mostly in conflict-ridden countries or under authoritarian regimes. When focusing on Europe, there has been increased interest in the conditions under which civil Search and Rescue (SAR) organisations operate in the Central Mediterranean Sea.

These humanitarian organisations have been regularly forced to defend themselves from attempts by EU member states to impede their life-saving work at sea. The actions taken by individual European politicians, prosecutors and other state authorities against their activities are well known. They range from defamation and de-legitimisation to restrictions, such as Italy and Malta’s ‘closed ports’ policies.

Another strategy has been the criminalisation of individual crew members and the seizure of rescue ships. In the past years, almost every SAR NGO in the Mediterranean has been forced to abandon this theatre of operations, at least temporarily, due to interventions by governments or state authorities – even though private organisations have saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean.

This was not only an active attempt to obstruct humanitarian assistance, it was also an unprecedented case of political instrumentalisation

This is especially worrying as these crews were filling a vacuum, where European states had failed to adequately respond to deaths at sea. Without their work, many more lives would have been lost. SOS MEDITERRANEE alone has assisted 30,182 persons in distress at sea since launching its operations in 2016.

Among many, there are two concrete examples that demonstrate how the humanitarian space has shrunk for SAR organisations and how, as a consequence, the Central Mediterranean route has become even more deadly for migrants and refugees. The story of the Aquarius, the former rescue ship that SOS MEDITERRANEE ran in partnership with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), provides an illustrative example. The ship operated from 2016 until late 2018, until certain political campaigns decided to impede its work.

In 2018, following political pressure, the Aquarius was stripped of its flag twice in less than two months – first by Gibraltar, then by Panama. In the latter case, the Italian government had pressured Panama to delete the Aquarius from its ship registry. This was not only an active attempt to obstruct humanitarian assistance, it was also an unprecedented case of political instrumentalisation of one of the core principles guaranteed in maritime conventions, namely freedom of navigation.

Only a couple of months later, SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF faced yet another attack. An investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office of Catania concerning the unclassified disposal of onboard waste, with allegations of illegally profiting from it, resulted in the decision by Italian judicial authorities to request the seizure of the Aquarius. Subsequently, SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF were forced to demobilise the Aquarius and return the vessel to its owner. It took until summer 2019 for SOS MEDITERRANEE to launch a new ship.

All administrative, political and legal campaigns against NGOs need to stop

Both attacks are textbook examples of the shrinking humanitarian space. Almost all SAR NGOs have faced restrictions. It goes without saying that the harassment campaigns against humanitarian assistance at sea has resulted in fatalities.  The fatal consequences were not only borne by the organisations themselves but primarily by vulnerable men, women and children trying to flee war, poverty and abuse in Libya and their countries of origin.

As a direct consequence of the EU’s crackdown on SAR NGOs, the risk of dying during the crossing from Libya to Europe is as high as never before. According to UNHCR, the overall number of deaths at sea in the Central Mediterranean substantially decreased in 2018, compared to the previous year. Yet, the rate of deaths per number of people attempting the journey rose sharply. The reduction in SAR capacity through smear campaigns against NGOs contributed to the more than 450 deaths off the Libyan coast that month.

Which conclusions can be drawn from this? What needs to be done to reopen the humanitarian space for SAR NGOs in the Mediterranean and thereby prevent further loss of life?

As long as the EU and its member states refuse to set up a joint SAR programme in the Central Mediterranean, they at least have to ensure the civil fleet is not hindered in their efforts to fill this humanitarian gap. All administrative, political and legal campaigns against NGOs need to stop. This includes putting an end to the policy of closed ports.

Europe cannot stand by and let this tragedy grow even bigger

Moreover, European states need to immediately set up an effective, coherent and transparent disembarkation system in line with international law. In late September, Germany, France, Italy and Malta made a first step in this direction during an informal meeting held in Valletta. Now more EU states have to join this coalition and show that they live up to the value of European solidarity.

What is at stake here are the lives of those trying to flee torture, sexual exploitation, forced labour and other human rights violations in Libya. The Mediterranean Sea has already become a mass grave. Europe cannot stand by and let this tragedy grow even bigger.

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