The War on Migrants Continues - NGOs harassed in the Mediterranean

Update Aug. 16, 2017 Since this PR has been written, the situation in the Mediterranean is much more worse:
 Libya established a SAR zone up to 100 miles of its coast, forbidden to foreign vessels, particularly those of the NGOs.
 Facing threats from the Libyan coast-guards, several NGOs (as of Aug. 16, 2017 Médecins sans frontières, Save the Children and Sea Eye) decided to interrupt their SAR missions.
 General Haftar asks the EU for 20 billions €, for the «safety» of Libya Southern border, and nearly 1000 migrants have been intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast-guards to be sent back to the hell of the Libyan gaols.

OHCHR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) is, as of today, the only international body to react (although a little bit too late, on Aug. 15): Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, warned that Italy-EU search and rescue code could increase Mediterranean deaths.
Meanwhile the Italian government is satisfied, UNHCR doesn’t react and the EU and its Member states silently approuve this extension of externalisation, planned and hoped for from a long time.


Migreurop Press Release, August 13, 2017

By attacking NGOs trying to save lives from drowning in the Mediterranean, the Italian government, with the support of European Member States, just went a step further in the war waged against migrants.

In spring 2015 already, under the pressure of major capitals in the European Union (EU), Italy had put an end to its military and rescue operation Mare Nostrum criticised for constituting a “pull factor”. Since then, proactive rescue has progressively been taken over by NGOs seeking to fill the lethal gap left by states. To date, an important part of rescue at sea is conducted by humanitarian organisations, while European state dedicates most of their forces, including public funding, to border surveillance and the fight against ‘smugglers’, as exemplified by the Frontex agency.

Such a deliberate deterrence policy has resulted in the increase in the number of fatalities among migrants crossing the Mediterranean: from 3,700 in 2015 it rose to 5,000 in 2016, and more than 2000 deaths have been recorded to date in 2017 [1]. Facing a complete absence of solidarity from its European counterparts, – in fact, ‘relocation’ policies meant to ensure that Italy and Greece are not left alone in taking care of asylum-seekers reaching their soil, were from the start a predictable failure - the Italian government has decided to show leadership in the ‘left-to-die’ policy conducted over the past few years.

As the number of fatalities in the Mediterranean continues to rise, the criminalisation of solidarity with migrants by many States including France [2], now constitutes the new instrument of the EU’s policy. NGOs conducting SAR operations are being blocked in their activities: the signature of a ‘Code of Conduct’ [3] forcing them to accept the presence of armed police officers on board, in contradiction with the very principle of neutrality that characterises humanitarian operations, was imposed to them. Unyielding organisations have been threatened to not be able to maintain their activities and are now on the radar of the Italian judiciary. One of them saw its vessel seized by the Trapani prosecutor, while, in the meantime, legal procedures and condemnations against ‘criminals of solidarity’ are multiplying. Thus, Father Zerai, who inspired the AlarmPhone project by signalling vessels in distress since many years, is under investigation for “supporting illegal immigration”. The objective is crystal clear: accusing NGOs of being complicit with ‘smugglers’ is used to get them out of the way so as to end their rescue activities accused of constituting a “pull factor” and prevent them from witnessing the EU’s externalisation policy at work in Libya. In so doing, the EU, and especially the Italian government which keeps developing cooperation ties with Libyan coast guards i.e. actors involved in human trafficking and violence against migrants, is trying to close one of the main maritime routes still available to seek asylum in Europe.

The EU-Turkey declaration in spring 2016 has blocked a great number of exiles willing to take what is referred to as the Eastern Mediterranean route. It is considered a successful cooperation model which the EU is eager to reproduce with Libya, although it is of public knowledge that migrants in this country are exposed to severe violence and ill-treatment [4] before undertaking a particularly dangerous sea-crossing. Today, both the Italian and the French government are negotiating with parties to the conflict in Libya. Exiles are (mis)used in a vast bargain: the armed groups and leaders currently competing for power who will succeed in limiting the number of departures will get the greatest level of political and financial support. The diplomatic rules that prevailed before the fall of colonel Gaddafi are being re-established: Libya is servicing the EU’s migration control policies so as to be acknowledged, in return, as a full-fledged political and economic partner, even if this means doing away with human rights and democratic principles.

As human rights defenders as well as international organisations such as the UNHCR [5] keep alerting on the deadly danger faced by foreign communities in Libya, exiles who are today victims of militias and other criminal groups are condemned to be handed back to their very gaolers. By proposing that refugee camps be established in Libya, the French president thus walked in the footsteps of other European leaders, in line with a number of European projects evoked since the 2000’s. If implemented, this would be for Europe a way to renounce its international obligations as regards the protection of asylum-seekers and other exiles. The policy currently being implemented is clear and well-known: outsourcing border control and increasing the level of coercion against refugees. In this context, SAR NGOs have become the main enemy against whom states deploy all the means possible. Together with activists acting in solidarity with people engaged in the promotion of the right to emigrate, they are the last barriers preventing Europe from shrinking its migration policy to a left-to-die operation turning the Mediterranean into a liquid grave. Therefore, the Migreurop network stands in support and in defence of all those accused of crimes of solidarity.

August 13, 2017


Emmanuel Blanchard

Sara Prestianni