Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Humanitarian Battlefield in the Mediterranean Sea: Moving Beyond Rescuing and Letting Die



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Guest post by Glenda Garelli (University of Leeds) and Martina Tazzioli (Swansea Univeresity). 

The Mediterranean Sea is increasingly becoming a humanitarian battlefield. First, the loss of human lives in the Mediterranean has long been the result of EU migration containment politics (e.g. visa policies, lack of humanitarian channels, border externalization measures, and short-sighted resettlement schemes). As a result of this raft of measures, those who seek to find refuge in Europe have to resort to smugglers. Second, the criminalization of humanitarian organizations and activists mobilizing to secure the safety of human life at sea, where states’ dedicated search and rescue operations have been withdrawn, has also turned the Mediterranean into a humanitarian battlefield, i.e. a space where humanitarian interventions to save lives at sea are obstructed, blocked and discouraged.

In this post, we discuss how events in the Mediterranean have transformed the politics of humanitarianism; causing it to drift away from its traditional political neutrality, towards a more radical activism. Two recent episodes are instructive, one dealing with civil society’s response to new regulations (Code of Conduct) issued by the Italian government, the other concerning a newly launched operation.

In July 2017, following repeated threats to close its ports to aid groups involved in rescue operations at sea, the Italian government instituted a Code of Conduct for organisations working at sea. The code bans light signals that may help migrants, and forbids the transfer of rescued migrants to smaller boats for their ferrying to a safe port. It also requires humanitarian actors to accept the presence of armed police onboard. The decision whether or not to sign the Italian Code of Conduct had radical ethical and legal consequences. Among the NGOs and independent actors who refused to sign it, was the German organisation ‘Jugend Rettet’ that was active with the Dutch-flagged luventa boat. On August 1, 2017, the day after the organisation’s refusal to sign was made public, the luventa crew was accused of colluding with Libyan smugglers and their boat was seized by the Italian authorities. Even though the investigation found no evidence against the NGO, the Italian government seized the opportunity to shift the narrative about the Mediterranean Sea away from a ‘migration crisis’ requiring an intervention to save refugees’ lives, to a ‘smuggler crisis’ calling for actions to stop smugglers.

By the end of the summer of 2018, NGOs and aid organizations at sea were obstructed and prevented to act, through a series of administrative, para-legal and political measures that impeded their sailing, disembarking, and rescue operations. As it has been widely documented, a decrease in rescue vessels results in an increase of shipwrecks and migrant deaths, not in fewer migrant departures. In fact, as the UNHCR reports, the rate of mortality reached its peak in 2018 in comparison with the number of arrivals, i.e. as the number of migrants arriving declines the number of people dying increases.

While the International Law of the Sea clearly mandates that all persons in distress at sea must be rescued, regulations about where migrants can disembark are more ambiguous. For example, the Libyan Coast Guard is currently rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. Under the terms of the Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding, they seek to return people to Libya. In July 2018, about 73% of the migrants who left Libya were pushed back to the country, allegedly to protect them from smugglers and risky journeys at sea in what could be called ‘humanitarian push-back operations.’ These Libyan ‘rescue operations’, however, have become a trap for migrants, as they end up being either imprisoned or deported once they are brought back to Libya.

Against this context, on October 4, 2018, a group of activists and civil society actors launched Operation Mediterranea. The operation set an Italian-flagged boat, the Mare Ionio, to sail in the central Mediterranean in order to monitor and bear witness to violations of human rights and maritime laws. In this way, Mediterranea tries to hold states to account by drawing on the same laws that the states are not complying with.

Twisting humanitarianism

As humanitarian actions in the Mediterranean are increasingly criminalised, it is important to pay attention to the subsequent transformations of humanitarianism, and to revisit the concept of neutrality that has characterised the politics of humanitarianism so far. It is important to underline that humanitarianism has always been political. It has been working within the boundaries of governmental policies, taking an impartial stance in order to perform humanitarian tasks in conflict zones, and intervening in pressing human rights issues. In the current context, however, the mere act of rescuing migrants and disembarking them in a European member state triggers harsh diplomatic cases and heated political disputes. In so doing, we want to suggest that humanitarian actions should be seen as political actions propelled by an active way of taking sides against Europe’s harsh politics of migration containment, and against the unequal access to mobility implemented by the EU Visa regime.

As a response to the accusation of being a pull-factor for the migrants who want to reach the Northern shore of the Mediterranean, humanitarian actors and NGOs contend that they are there ‘just’ to save human lives, and to comply with the laws that states often violate. In so doing, the principle of neutrality that notably underpins the humanitarianism is flagged up against the accusations of smuggling migrants to Europe and of constituting a pull factor. This is an important point for actors working on the ground whose goal is to remain operative within the current context. However, we argue that a more pro-active defense against those criticisms could point to the fact that humanitarianism per se is also an act of support towards people in seek of asylum.

While criticizing the criminalisation of migrant solidarity, it is important not to reproduce a racialised divide between the ‘good’ white European citizens who help migrants for free even at the risk of being prosecuted as smugglers for their actions, and the ‘real’ smugglers. What is the answer to the accusation that NGOs smuggle migrants to Europe and ‘facilitate illegal immigration’? On the one hand, it is crucial to produce the most effective legal and political weapons to counteract the criminalisation of NGOs at sea, as recent political campaigns have done. On the other hand, the criticism of working as smugglers ‘for free’ could be strategically appropriated to provocatively argue that ‘we are all smugglers’. This refers to the mobilisation of legal, logistic and political means to support the safe movement and access to asylum for those people who have been forced by state laws to become ‘illegal migrants.’ Recently while a lot of attention has focused on civil society’s compliance with international law, the active refusal of states’ laws and visa regimes that produce some migrants as ‘illegal’ should instead take centre stage and bring social justice to the core of citizens’ mobilizations. For instance, the recent campaign ‘We are not fish’, which mobilized many people in Italy to demand the opening of ports for migrants further reinforces the political activation of humanitarianism as it suggests equality of rights among human beings, and opposes the racialization of some people as ‘less than human.’ In such a way, a sort of common political terrain is constituted around a ‘we’ which opposes a politics of mobility centered around the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, as well as between ‘rescuers’ and ‘rescued.’.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Garelli, G and Tazzioli, M. (2019) The Humanitarian Battlefield in the Mediterranean Sea: Moving Beyond Rescuing and Letting Die. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/04/humanitarian (Accessed [date])

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