“We have a safe port,” a crew member tells dozens of despondent asylum seekers crammed into a cabin aboard the Sea-Watch 3 NGO rescue ship. After almost three weeks of being stranded in the Mediterranean, the news takes a moment to sink in. “We’re going in,” he explains. “C’est fini (It’s over).” Within seconds the room erupts in unrestrained relief and joy.
This was the end of an ordeal for 49 women, men and children last week aboard the Sea-Watch 3 and Professor Albrecht Penck NGO vessels, who were finally disembarked in Malta.
They had been rescued in December after fleeing Libya but the ships were denied permission to dock in any European port on the Mediterranean. As days turned to weeks, some European governments pledged to receive those rescued once they entered Europe via Italian or Maltese ports. But Italy kept refusing to allow the ships to dock in its ports, while Malta offered its cooperation on condition that other European countries agreed to take another 249 people previously rescued by Maltese authorities in a separate operation.
With reports of children becoming sick and one man jumping overboard in a futile attempt to reach the shore, international outrage grew. Even the Pope issued a “heartfelt appeal to European leaders to show concrete solidarity for these people.”
After much political grandstanding, the ships were eventually allowed to dock.
Under international law, people rescued at sea must be taken to a nearby place of safety, namely a country where they will be treated humanely and offered a genuine opportunity to seek asylum. Until recently, that meant anyone rescued in the central Mediterranean en route from Libya was taken to Europe, as returning them to Libya would expose them to the threat of arbitrary detention and potentially torture.
But, keen to block migration, European governments invented a work-around to circumvent their legal obligations: they gave the Libyan Coast Guard support to intercept people at sea and return them to Libya. This included providing boats, training and support in planning and coordinating operations within a Libyan ‘search and rescue region’ in the central Mediterranean, where most shipwrecks happen. This gave the Libyan authorities the responsibility to coordinate rescue operations and to instruct the rescuing vessels where to disembark those rescued.
The result has been a ‘Catch 22’ situation, where those rescued cannot be taken to Libya because it is unlawful and inhumane, or to Europe because European governments are refusing requests for disembarkation.
As part of the same strategy to reduce the number of disembarkations in Europe, countries have increasingly withdrawn patrols. NGOs that have stepped in to fill the gap – rescuing people in distress, including in the Libyan search and rescue region – have not only found themselves regularly refused a port to dock (particularly in Italy and Malta), but they have also been prevented from conducting their life-saving activities through unfounded criminal investigations and bureaucratic obstacles.
In the latest example, Spanish authorities prevented the Proactiva Open Arms NGO ship from setting sail from Barcelona to the central Mediterranean last Monday.
European governments are reticent to allow people rescued at sea to disembark in their countries. They do not want the responsibility that it triggers, to provide people with a chance to seek asylum and assist them throughout the proceedings.
Usually the country through which the asylum seeker first enters the EU is responsible for examining their asylum claim, hosting them during the process, integrating the successful applicant into society and returning those who are refused protection to their home countries. Thus, coastal states have often had to deal with this on their own as there is no system to share such responsibility among European states.
The need to reform the European asylum rules – the so-called ‘DublinRegulation’ – has been recognised by many. Despite the EU Parliament’s attempt to introduce reforms, no changes have been made due to opposition from a few countries.
Rather than finding pragmatic ways of better managing migration, EU governments are increasingly unified around the idea of keeping people out. The human collateral of this unconscionable approach are the exhausted asylum-seekers stranded at sea for weeks on rescue ships. Less visible are the women, men and children arbitrarily held in Libya’s detention centres or the ones whose bodies will never be found.
“This has not been Europe’s finest hour,” EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said of the Sea Watch debacle last week. “The European Union is about human values and solidarity. And if human values and solidarity are not upheld, it is not Europe.”
While Europe is unified in trying to pass the buck to third countries for problems of its own making, it is still divided when it comes to reaching solutions. We need to cut through the rhetoric which demonises people seeking safety – and those trying to help them – purely for political purposes.
More women, men and children will suffer unless European governments agree on a swift and predictable disembarkation policy in line with international law and a fair system to share responsibility among EU countries.