When saving the lives of migrants becomes a crime

There are no eyes to witness what happens in the Mediterranean now. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is the intention

The Aquarius rescue ship entering the port of Valencia on June 17th, 2018. Some 630 migrants whose rescue sparked a major migration row in Europe  disembarked. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

The Aquarius rescue ship entering the port of Valencia on June 17th, 2018. Some 630 migrants whose rescue sparked a major migration row in Europe disembarked. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

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The duty to assist vessels in distress is one of the most important rules of international maritime law. But in the Mediterranean such assistance is increasingly being compromised by political pressure. In June, NGO rescue ship Astral was told by the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Rome to stand back and let the Libyan coast guard respond to a distress call from a refugee boat, only to hear afterwards that some 100 people aboard had drowned.

“The bodies of three children under the age of five have been retrieved,” said the International Organisation for Migration’s Christine Petre in a heartbreaking statement. “How many missing or dead total we don’t know for now.”

Volunteer Jutta Nagel, who was aboard the NGO rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 in April, described receiving a similar order when responding to a distress call.

“We arrived and began handing out life vests, making sure people were safe,” she said. One man held out a 12-day-old baby, pleading with Nagel to take it.

At that moment the Libyan coast guard arrived on the scene. Nagel and her colleagues had to retreat, because – as directed by the co-ordination centre – the coast guard had priority over the rescue.

When the people aboard heard they were to be returned to Libya, a country with an active slave trade and where widespread violence and even torture has been recorded against refugees, many of them jumped into the sea. For one heart-stopping moment Nagel saw the man consider throwing the baby into the water too.

Poorly trained

Why would the co-ordination centre give priority to a coast guard that is chronically under-equipped and poorly trained, with a record of firing on both NGO vessels and migrants?

Because the Libyan coast guard is the only entity who can return people to Libya. Any other vessel cannot recognise Libya as the nearest “safe port” required by maritime law, and would have to bring them to Europe instead. This is exactly what the EU is paying large amounts of money to avoid.

Under Operation Sophia, which Ireland contributes to, the Libyan coast guard and navy have been receiving support to stop people reaching Europe. This cooperation is despite a state of emergency in Libya and a virtual break down in law and order there, with the UN now describing the situation as “extremely critical”.

Even after massive investments by the EU, calls to the Libyan coast guard’s emergency line go unanswered. Just last month it publicly warned that its operations were at the point of collapse.

Libya is only one of several countries the EU has agreed dubious immigration deals with, joining Morocco and Tunisia.

And under a highly controversial deal with Turkey, anyone braving the sea crossing to Greece can be returned to Turkey. This is despite the fact that the European Commission’s own report this year concluded that democracy and human rights have continued to backslide in the country.

The deal also appears to have encouraged Turkey to break the law. Just this month a dinghy that had reached Greek waters was forcibly towed back to Turkey.

In August, a Turkish coast guard helicopter descended upon another dinghy, generating a swell strong enough to push the boat back into Turkish jurisdiction. This was a breathtakingly dangerous move, and illegal.

Inherent abuses

Yet instead of recognising the inherent abuses taking place with EU support, member states are now turning on NGOs.

A former RNLI lifeboat, run by Refugee Rescue, is now the only non-governmental rescue boat left on the Aegean Sea. When the crew asks for permission to assist dinghies in distress it is often refused.

Migrants on a dinghy are approached by the Aquarius off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Photograph: Patrick Bar/SOS Mediterranee via AP
Migrants on a dinghy are approached by the Aquarius off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Photograph: Patrick Bar/SOS Mediterranee via AP

The situation is even worse in the Mediterranean.

The mission Nagel rode on was one of the last for Sea-Watch 3. The ship has been detained in Malta for the last three months for reasons that keep shifting. Sister organisations Lifeline and Seefuchs have likewise been detained in Malta.

Proactiva Open Arms has one of its vessels seized in Sicily for several months. Jugend Rettet also had its boat impounded in Sicily.

Volunteer rescue workers in Greece and elsewhere have recently been charged with people smuggling and people trafficking – accusations they vehemently deny.

In July, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) went before the Dáil to warn against this “demonisation” of NGO work by European governments. “We are humanitarian workers,” a recent statement read, “here simply to save lives and to bring people to a place of safety.”

If its tone sounds frustrated, it is. MSF has been assisting with the last remaining non-governmental rescue ship in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius. It has lately been forced to travel almost 1,000 miles out of its way to dock. The situation has worsened even in the last few weeks, with the Aquarius now stripped of its flag and detained at harbour due to similar political pressure.

One oft-used justification is that rescue NGOs act as a “pull factor,” encouraging people smuggling and migration, even though research from Goldsmith’s College has proven this to be untrue.

Death rate

What is true is that the death rate for Mediterranean crossings has almost tripled since 2015, with September now the deadliest month on record. A recent UN report has directly attributed this to a lack of NGO rescue boats in operation.

If we truly wanted to stop dangerous crossings and save lives there is a simple solution: open safe, legal routes.

In the meantime the restrictions on rescue boats must be lifted, and immediately. Last weekend the Sea-Watch 3 was finally released from detention but is not yet up and running.

There are no eyes to witness what happens in the Mediterranean right now. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is the intention.

Riona Judge McCormack has recently returned from emergency work in Lesbos, Greece.

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