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Humanity Diverted at Sea: Europe Exchanges Migrants Lives for Votes

The Aquarius assisted 629 people at sea over the single weekend of June 9-10.  The search and rescue vessel, operated by SOS Méditerranée and MSF, is now en route to Valencia after Italy’s announcement that its harbors are closed to search and rescue NGOs ships. Spain’s offer to welcome the passengers was praised as a gesture of solidarity and humanity.

There is, though, little humanity in forcing men, women and children – some suffering from chemical burns, others needing resuscitation after drowning, and all of them having been through the ill-treatment suffered by all migrants in Libya — to spend four more days on the floor of an understocked ship with bad weather expected on the way without a stop permitted in a safe harbor nor a plane offered to assist the victims.  As the Aquarius was running out of supplies, Italian coastguards offered oranges, cereal bars, and bread. It will still be a number of days until its passengers can enjoy a decent meal.

Aware of this ‘PR problem’, EU politicians and their governments pointed fingers at one another while a different ship intervened in international waters to rescue another boat in distress. The ICO USNS Trenton, a US navy vessel, responded to a shipwreck right after Italy announced that only Italian vessels would now be authorized to bring migrants to its ports. The Trenton’s crew rescued 41 survivors and spotted 12 dead bodies. At the time of writing, the navy ship was still waiting for instructions to be delivered as to where they should take the survivors. The deceased bodies remain lost at sea.

It is difficult to imagine more avoidable inhumane treatment. It is hard to believe no other solutions were available. This is another illustration of a harrowing truth: there is no dignity — in life or in death — for migrants at sea.

Most commentators, lawyers and journalists have tried to determine who bore responsibility for offering a port to the Aquarius. Though migratory status is irrelevant when rescuing distressed people at sea, obstacles arise when it is time to disembark them in a place of safety.

Being a migrant adrift at sea means that you will most likely be subjected to discriminatory treatment when it comes to rescue. This is because states are reluctant to accept refugees and migrants. This has been seen on multiple occasions in the current Mediterranean crisis but also during the 1970s where Vietnamese boat people were left to die by their unhospitable neighbors. The lack of burden-sharing and the fear to be overwhelmed has always been an argument used to justify border closure. It is the argument used today by Italy to justify the treatment of the people on the Aquarius. Shamefully, it seems acts of humanity only occur when the so called ‘burden’ of such humanity is shared.

Search and rescue only ends when a safe port has been found. The law states that it was Italy’s duty – as coordinator of the rescues – to find that safe harbor. It was even Italian ships that transferred 400 people into the Aquarius over the weekend, to later strand them at sea and use them as political blackmail.  But should legal responsibility be the main focus here?

When the law is unclear, the common sense of saving innocent lives should prevail. Yet, the respect of human life as a fundamental value is missing in contemporary EU migration management.

Migrants’ lives only matter when they can be counted and used to justify stricter border control and dirty deals with Libyan coast guards and Turkey. Only death counts seem to raise EU eyebrows. While the European commission applauds the reduced deaths at sea as evidence of the success of its current strategy, it conveniently ignores that it is on average more dangerous to cross than before. MSF has been calling for a proactive search and rescue mechanism to be created in the Mediterranean sea for years. This call fell on deaf ears. Now that NGO ships have been banned from Italian harbours, these dangers are likely to increase even further.

Proactive search and rescue remains the only concrete option today to save lives at sea yet the focus of the EU response is on preventing people (including those in the death counts)  from reaching EU shores. This includes preventing their rescue and facilitating their violent capture by EU-trained Libyan coast guards.

The current EU policies at its external borders dehumanizes migrants in startling ways.  Actual people are being swapped in exchange for border control, aid money and political leverage. Endangering these lives is considered acceptable to gain votes.
7,500 people are stuck today by the EU-Turkey deal in the EU hotspot on Lesbos. These prisoners are exposed to institutional violence, with increased attempted suicides attesting to that. The parents of Madina, the little girl who was hit by a train as she was pushed back in the middle of the night by Croatian border guards can equally testify to that. There are so many lives being lost because they don’t count in the European Commission evaluation reports.

Rescuing someone in danger of dying is the most basic human duty. It is based on the principle that human life should be preserved. While Italy should be condemned for using vulnerable people crowded on a ship as a bargaining chip, other EU governments should not judge too quickly: this is common practice now, applied on a daily basis at the doors of Europe — and with their full blessing.

By Aurélie Ponthieu.  Photo by Mohammad Ghannam © MSF, 2016.

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