On 2 September 2015, the body of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old boy from the northern Syrian town of Kobane, was found dead on the beach of Ali Hoca Burnu in Bodrum, southwest Turkey. The European Community was deeply moved.
As a humanitarian actor, I naively imagined that European governments would put in place migration policies that focus on welcoming migrants and respect the dignity of individuals. But the response of European leaders to date has focused more on deterrence and intimidation than on helping and protecting those in need.
In March 2016, the agreement between the European Union and Turkey was approved by the European states. This aimed to stop the flow of migrants by outsourcing Europe’s borders. While the total number of arrivals fell sharply between 2016 and 2018, since the beginning of 2019, more than 10,000 men, women and children have arrived by sea to Greece, including 2,900 in May alone.
The approach of the EU and European states, far from curbing and deterring migration, has only succeeded in changing the routes taken by people seeking security, forced to flee war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Three years after the EU-Turkey agreement, at least 15,000 men, women and children are currently stranded in disastrous conditions in the Greek islands. The agreement has trapped these thousands of people in overcrowded areas and conditions that are unhealthy, degrading and dangerous to their lives. Their health is deteriorating, due to lack of access to primary health care, and causes great distress. The efforts of humanitarian actors can never be a sufficient alternative to overcome the inability of European states to provide decent and humane living conditions and adequate medical care for these thousands of migrants.
Even more worryingly, over the past three years, the logic of the EU-Turkey agreement has been reproduced (by delegating responsibility for border control to a country outside the EU), particularly with Libya, which cannot be considered a safe country for migrants. Over the past six weeks, an increasing number of vulnerable people have tried to flee Libya's hell. More than 3,800 departures on makeshift boats have been recorded.
In one year, 10,000 people were intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan coast guard. European leaders support these forced returns despite knowing exactly the level of exploitation, torture, sexual violence and arbitrary detention to which these people are exposed in that country. Despite the failure to respect the most basic rights, European States continue to support a migration policy that ignores its human cost.
Humanitarian actors can beg European governments to put people’s lives before politics. Nothing works. While 18,360 people have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean since 2014; while the majority of these deaths have occurred in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta, along what remains the deadliest migration route in the world, what is the response of European leaders?
Do they urgently establish proactive and sufficient search and rescue capabilities and competent and responsive coordination authorities in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent further loss of life? Do they stop punitive actions against NGOs that try to provide vital assistance to fill the current lack of such provision? Do they remove the current political and material support for the system of forcibly returning migrants to arbitrary and inhuman detention in Libya?
No, none of that.
In March 2019, the European Union took the decision to suspend the deployment of its means of rescuing migrants at sea in the Central Mediterranean, while taking care to extend the funding and training of the Libyan coastguard, which began in October 2016. This will allow them to continue to intercept migrants and forcibly return them to Libya with the consent, support and funds of the EU.
Up to the summer of 2018, the coordination of rescues off Libya was carried out by the rescue coordination centre in Rome. But since July 2016, the EU has mandated the Italian coastguard to support the establishment of such a centre in Tripoli under the responsibility of the Libyans.
This has been the case since the summer of 2018.
While Libya has become over the years a reliable partner in migration policies as the EU has renounced it, NGOs and life-savers in the Mediterranean continue to be criminalised.
Pia Klemp, the former captain of the migrant rescue ships Iuventa, then Sea Watch-3, is accused by the Italian courts of “suspicion of aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. She faces 20 years in prison in Italy. Her crime: saving lives at sea.
In 2018, the search and rescue vessel Aquarius, managed by SOS Méditerranée in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières, was prevented from entering Italian ports and lost its flag and registration. A continuous campaign of denigration, slander, intimidation, grotesque accusations and obstructions forced the two NGOs to stop their search and rescue operations.
Over the past year, ship blockages in the Central Mediterranean have become the new “norm”, with more than 18 publicly documented incidents. These blockades lasted 140 days, or more than four months, during which 2,443 vulnerable men, women and children were trapped at sea as European leaders debated their future.
The consequences of the criminalisation of rescue at sea not only affect humanitarian vessels, but also make the very obligation to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea a rule lacking reality. Does Europe still have the means to save its soul by putting in place the measures that would make this duty of assistance a reality? Personally, I would still like to believe in it.