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Between Humanitarianism and Solidarity at Sea: The Recent Emergence of 'Citizen Humanitarianism' in the Central Mediterranean



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Guest post by Marta Esperti. Marta is a PhD candidate at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, Lecturer at Université de Lille, former visiting academic at COMPAS, University of Oxford. This is the eighth post of Border Criminologies themed series on 'Deaths at Borders' organised by Marta Esperti and Antoine Pécoud. The series draws upon a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, coordinated by Marta and Antoine.

The Central Mediterranean is the most deadly border in the Mediterranean sea and worldwide. The International Organization of Migration recorded at least 16,324 fatalities between 2014 and 2019. The growing commitment of civil society actors (CSOs) – including activists and academics - played an important role to raise awareness of the issue of migrant border-related deaths at the Euro-Mediterranean border, especially in the Strait of Sicily. Nevertheless, these civil society actors were not present at sea: the Mediterranean maritime space and the search and rescue activities have been under the exclusive control of military maritime authorities until the end of 2014. The Italian humanitarian and military operation Mare Nostrum - deployed between 2013 and 2014 – contributed to the militarization of the humanitarian maritime border.

Following the closing of Mare Nostrum, Heller and Pezzani, in their report Death by rescue, documented a number of cases of non-assistance at sea in the Central Mediterranean. Between the end of 2014 and 2018 a variety of new CSOs passed to action undertaking proactive civil search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean through rescue vessels, and, therefore, representing a novelty in the humanitarian regime at sea. In late 2014 MOAS was the first philanthropic private actor to engage in the rescue activities of refugees at sea, in partnership with various established medicalNGOs and IGOs: MSF, Emergency, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross).  A new non-profit organization named Sea-Watch started operating at sea in 2015. Beyond the humanitarian action at sea of professional NGOs like MSF and Save the Children, during 2016 a noticeable number of new European citizens-based civil sea rescue organizations emerged: Proactiva Open Arms, Sea-Eye, Jugend Rettet, Life Boat Project, Boat Refugees Foundation and SOS MEDITERRANEE followed the initiative of Sea-Watch. Mission Lifeline and Mediterranea Saving Humans undertook rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean respectively in 2017 and 2018.

Patrol and rescue activities of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms during the summer of 2019 (Photo: Valerio Nicolosi)

The multiplicity of non-governmental actors undertaking rescue activities of migrants at sea fosters an analysis of the evolution of civil humanitarianism at the Euro-Mediterranean border in recent years. The majority of these actors work broadly on a voluntary basis, are related to social movements coming from below and are therefore politically engaged in activist movements in solidarity with migrants. These characteristics encourage an analysis of the transformation of the humanitarian action at the Euro-Mediterranean border and in the maritime space.

In this article, I seek to challenge the nexus between humanitarian and security-oriented policies, questioning the role of a proactive civil humanitarianism at sea. In the social sciences literature, humanitarianism has been mostly studied as an instrument serving restrictive migration and border control policies. Recently, the wide development of a network of citizens-based grassroots organizations committed in various 'subversive' humanitarian activities and in solidarity with refugees, challenge through their activity the European deterrence-oriented governmental border policies. Analyzing the case of 'SAR NGOs' - a definition that addresses the particularity of these actors - I aim to unravel the emergence of different political and social meanings around civil humanitarianism at the EU’s southern maritime border, focusing in particular on the route between Libya and Italy as country of first arrival. Citizenship and social movements studies contribute to question the previous understanding of humanitarianism and to study forms of 'citizen humanitarianism' in which the idea of solidarity performs a primary role. In my essay, I place my analysis in the broader context of the 'European refugees crisis' and the rising importance of civil solidarity all over Europe. The increasing phenomenon concerning the proliferation of voluntary-based and citizen-centered grassroots groups volunteering to handle the humanitarian crisis can be traced back to the summer of 2015 in Greece, when – according to IOM – the number of arrivals by sea escalated from 72,632 in 2014 to 85,360 in 2015. Some scholars, like Papataxiarchis and Rozakou, advanced then new theoretical analysis focusing on the transformation of the humanitarian action and its evolution towards egalitarian socialities of solidarity. In this socio-political background the term 'solidarians' started replacing 'humanitarians'. 

The case of proactive civil humanitarian actors in the Central Mediterranean offers not only the opportunity to analyze the transformation of humanitarian action focusing on citizen initiatives, but also to question the relevance of the humanitarian space at sea as a political space. While rescue at sea and its conduct is regulated by International maritime and humanitarian Conventions establishing what states’ responses should be, there are, nonetheless, different political intentions and interpretations to comply with the legal fulfillments. During my fieldwork in Italy, I observed the overturning of the political consensus anent humanitarianism at sea. This political shift was evident from the beginning of 2017 and was in line with the European Council meeting occurred in Malta in February 2017 and the externalization of SAR activities in the Central Mediterranean through the support to Libyan military actors at sea. In parallel, a strong criminalization campaign of SAR NGOs emerged in Italy. An audition set up by the Defense Commission of the Senate of the Italian Republic took place between March and May 2017 and resulted in a strong political questioning and criticism of humanitarianism at sea. Dozens of investigations were opened, which, along with political declarations, accused 'SAR NGOs' of colluding with human traffickers and constituting a 'pull-factor' for migrants.

How can we explain this tenacious process of criminalization of rescue activities at sea? Beyond their differences, all 'SAR NGOs' started being present at sea with the aim of intervening in the salvage of people taking perilous—often mortal—routes by boat to reach the European shores, mitigating the mortality and the violation of human rights at sea. A proposal that might be in contrast with the preservation of deterrence-oriented policies and violence at the borders of 'Fortress Europe'. Moreover the recent strengthening of the securitization of border control policies all over Europe provoked an exacerbation of the general political hostility towards NGOs and citizens acting in solidarity with refugees, resulting in their increasing criminalisation. In this regard, Tazzioli and Walters examined the definition of 'crimes of solidarity'. The overall political complexity, instability, and aversion 'SAR NGOs' had to confront in the European context of the maritime borders governance and management are in line with these analyses.

To conclude, in this essay I try to highlight that humanitarian spaces offer opportunities both for activism and political negotiation. The engagement of 'SAR NGOs' often associated the humanitarian action at sea to other sociopolitical activities: advocating for safe and legal routes, sensitizing public opinion about migrants’ stories, witnessing and denouncing human rights violations, pressuring European governments, and institutions on the issue of deaths at the EU’s southern maritime borders. Hence, I take as a convincing reasoning Balibar's observation that citizens engaging in the humanitarian action at the borders may have different political approaches and motivations. They can play an institutional intermediary role of political negotiation, challenge the governmental narratives, or ensure the rule of law. Moreover, most of these new citizen-based associations perform or assist from the air the humanitarian action in the Central Mediterranean as a form of political struggle and resistance.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Esperti, M. (2020). Between Humanitarianism and Solidarity at Sea: The Recent Emergence of 'Citizen Humanitarianism' in the Central Mediterranean. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/10/between [date]

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