Tag Archives: EU

Search and Rescue: A necessary presence in the Mediterranean as long as people are drowning

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This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Kyrre Lind is a field worker and spokesperson and Head of program department MSF Norway. This is the fourth instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

The Italian Coast Guard rescues migrants bound for Italy. Photo: Francesco Malavolta/IOM

Last night when I wrote this piece, the search and rescue ship Ocean Viking rescued 92 people, including pregnant women and small babies, from an overcrowded rubber boat 30 nautical miles from the coast of Libya. Many of the survivors suffered from hypothermia and seasickness, and many were extremely weak and saturated in fuel.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE have since august 2019 rescued over 1,500 people at sea in the central Mediterranean. In 2019, 14,876 people reached Malta or Italy by sea, while 771 deaths were recorded. In 2019, more than 2,000 people were evacuated from Libya by UNHCR, to Niger, Rwanda, different European countries and Canada. At the same time, the Libyan coastguard forced more than 9,000 border crossers back. About 3,000 – 5,000 remain trapped in official detention centres in Libya.

In August 2019, MSF returned to sea as people were drowning. Our actions were directed at saving their lives. We intervened because the conflict raged in Tripoli and ever more migrants and refugees were losing their lives in Libya. Throughout the second half of 2019, it often took days and weeks before assignment of a place of safety for the people we rescued. There is no established, predictable system for disembarkation of people from rescue ships and boats.

From our perspective as participants in the search and rescue, there seems to be little indication that NGO boats are a pull factor from the countries of origin. We see that reasons for leaving home are manifold. For those who already planned to cross the Mediterranean when they set on their journey, Europe is the real pull factor. They hope to obtain protection, security, a better life and a good job. However, there are also long-established migration routes from West Africa and Sudan to Libya and not everyone planned to cross the Mediterranean when they first set out on their journey. Many people we encountered tell us that they just wanted to get a job. Libya has for a long time been a country that hosts guest workers from African countries and others. The fact of the matter is that today Libya is a fragile country ravaged in civil war: lawless conditions make it easier to get a job without paperwork, but also increase the risk of exploitation and abuse. Yet, many take the chance and try to get a job in Libya.

What people tell us aboard the Ocean Viking is that the situation in Libya is the main reason why they are trying to leave the country. People tell us about war horrors, brutal violence, gross exploitation and slavery-like work conditions. Our medical staff on-board Ocean Viking see wounds and scars from beatings, cuts, burns and gunshots, the consequences of sexualized violence, and illnesses related to unhygienic living conditions. EU reports confirm how bad the situation is. IOM has expressed strong concerns about the situation and has asked for a completely new approach in the region. The people we meet say they would rather risk their lives at sea than stay in Libya.

Norway, the country where I come from, receives quota refugees from Libya (450 in 2019), and at the same time supports transit reception centres in Rwanda. However, Norway, via the EU, also supports the Libyan coastguard, which is forcibly returning people to Libya. Back on land, most of them are sent straight back to detention centres – back to the very same detention system MSF have consistently called for people to be evacuated from. Absurdly, and shamefully Norwegian politics is currently helping a few to get out of a terrible situation, while at the same time contributing to pushing people back to that very same conditions.

From where I stand, the narrative that our search and rescue activities are a pull factor for migration seems oversimplified. It is a tool used to defend the present politics, which is failing to solve the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean Sea.

The controversial lifesavers: NGO search and rescue in the Mediterranean

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This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Post by Katja Franko and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert. Katja is Professor of criminology at the University of Oslo. Her work is primarily concerned with borders, globalization and issues of criminalization of migration. Maria is Research Director and Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and the Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS). Her work is primarily concerned with humanitarian and security responses to migration and border management. This is the first instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

This artwork in Copenhagen, by renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, is made up of actual life jackets used by migrants crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos in search of safety or a better life in Europe. Photo: TeaMeister via Flickr

During 2016 and 2017, more than 46,000 migrants were rescued yearly by NGOs and civil society actors close to the Italian coast. The numbers have declined considerably in the past two years. NGOs are, nevertheless, still the largest single actor in search and rescue in the area apart from the Libyan coast guard, after Italy and the EU  delegated increased responsibilities on this matter to Libya during the last year. As pointed out by previous contributions on this blog, these activities have been subjected to various types of state intervention such as seizure of rescue vessels, arrests of crew members, and initiation of legal procedures against them. 

At the same time, NGO search and rescue (SAR) activities have been surrounded by intense rhetorical battles. Migration policy is a highly politicised field and positions on humanitarian rescue vary considerably, often depending on the speakers’ professions, institutional affiliations and political convictions. Attention to language is important here. The use of certain metaphors, discursive couplings and rhetorical tropes framing migrants and rescuers influences attitudes and political actions by focusing on certain aspects of the activities while suppressing others. At the most extreme, NGOs have been accused of ‘playing into the hands of human traffickers’ (Fabrice Leggeri, Director of Frontex, Die Welt, 27.2. 2017). SAR has been rhetorically coupled with human smuggling and even trafficking. As Frontex wrote in one of its reports: 

“Apparently, all parties involved in SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean unintentionally help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success.” (Frontex, 2017: 32).

More recently, the French interior minister Christophe Castaner suggested (5.4. 2019) that SAR off the North African coasts represent “a real collusion between smugglers and some NGOs“. What these linguistic tropes do is to present the rescuers as deliberately creating routes for irregular migration into Europe, and thereby effectively deflecting attention away from the duty of rescue and the lifesaving efforts they are fulfilling. Within this debate, there are similar discourses that eventually create doubts around the migrants’ right to assistance, by questioning their right to international protection. This narrative is underpinned by their awareness of the risks that they “put themselves into”, thereby obscuring the fact that the right to rescue is unconditional of any legal status (yet to be defined) and the reasons that have led anyone into that situation in the first place. 

While the statements referred to here may be the sharpest and most dramatic examples of condemnation of NGO rescue operations by EU member states and agencies, a more pervasive and, arguably, more influential perception has been established in the past decade or so: that SAR constitutes a pull factor for irregular migration. While the debate on the topic has raged, with polarized views and disagreements around this assumption, this idea of SAR as a pull factor has become more widespread. The idea is probably attractive because it provides a seemingly simple explanation to a situation that is otherwise difficult to comprehend: why people are risking their lives, and what should be done about it. 

Because the pull-factor argument has become pervasive in current discussions about  responses to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, it is important to address the question by closely examining the findings of existing scientific studies on the subject, and to critically discuss what this assumption does to the policy responses in the area. This is what we aim to do in this week’s thematic issue. The contributions address the issue of humanitarian Search and Rescue from several standpoints: from a policy and legal perspective, and from the point of view of humanitarian actors who are tackling these questions on a daily basis. The contributions were first presented at a public debate that took place at the House of Literature in Oslo in November 2019, jointly organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies and the University of Oslo’s NORDHOST project. Conscious of the fact that migration policies are often more informed by political convenience than scientific knowledge or even reference to international legal obligations, the event aimed to bring in dialogue researchers, politicians, NGO representatives and the general public in order to discuss the nature and impact of humanitarian SAR operations. 

In the second post, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert examines some of the existing studies about SAR as the pull factor, all refuting any direct connection and pointing to a more complex picture affecting the numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean. Her contribution then asks what the focus on SAR as a pull factor says about the state of European policies in the area.

Erik Røsæg, professor of maritime law at the University of Oslo, examines SAR from the perspective of the international law of the sea. What do existing conventions actually say about the duty to rescue, whose responsibility is it, and what it means to fulfil this responsibility? While political discourse may give an impression that there is much room for choice, Røsæg’s contribution points to the clarity and firmness of state legal obligations when it comes to SAR. 

The final two posts are contributions from the field by two NGO representatives, Kyrre Lind from Doctors without Borders Norway, and Pål Nesse from the Norwegian Refugee Council. Lind shares an account from the perspective of those participating actively in search and rescue, and who are at the centre of the “pull factor” polemic. Nesse follows up arguing that the “pull factor question” is all together the wrong question to start with: not only is the picture much more complex, but it also obscures what should be very clear, namely, the duty to rescue lives at sea.

While the contributions are critical of the discourses through which search and rescue activities have been framed in recent years, they also paint a more pressing overall picture. They show that European policies in this area have turned away from some central principles that have traditionally been seen as salient guides for political action: scientific evidence, legal rules and humanitarian principles. The contributions in this issue, and the preceding debate, show that this development is also taking place in Norway, a country that is often taking great pride in observing the above-mentioned principles. This is yet another reminder that when it comes to migration policy, there are few countries that have been able to stand firm on principles, when faced with the perceived urgency of the issue. 

Penal Humanitarianism: Projecting European Penal Power Beyond Europe (Part IV)

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This is the fourth post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. Drawing on the case of Niger, this post explores some of the processes through which the EU projects penal power beyond Europe and its allegedly humanitarian rationale.

Projecting European Penal Power Beyond Europe: Humanitarian War on Migrant Smuggling in West Africa

The European Union (EU) and its member states are increasingly pushing countries in the southern (extended) neighbourhood to criminalise unwanted mobility, and bolstering their internal security apparatuses and borders. The objective of this ‘internal security assistance’ is to combat transnational security threats and illicit flows of goods and people allegedly en route to Europe. Based on my doctoral research, which has included fieldwork in Niger, Mali, Senegal and Brussels, this post reflects on the EU’s increasing tendency of crime control ‘at a distance’ in West Africa.

Women’s meeting in Niger. Image by Stein Tønnesson/PRIO

Penal power is the power to render an activity criminal and to enforce criminal law, which is neatly entwined with a state’s sovereignty. For instance, Vanessa Barker writes how the reinforcement of national borders within Europe can be seen as a recent expression of state-craft where penal power is particularly salient. Yet Mary Bosworth argues that humanitarianism allows penal power to travel beyond the nation state, as can be observed in cases such as England’s aid to the building of prisons in its former colonies to which it can transfer and expel prisoners from these countries. Developing Bosworth’s concept of ‘penal humanitarianism’ further, Kjersti Lohne shows, through the supranational case of the International Criminal Court (ICC), how the power to punish is particularly driven by humanitarian reason when punishment is disembedded from the nation state altogether.

This blogpost examines some of the processes through which the EU projects penal power beyond Europe and its allegedly humanitarian rationale. I draw on the country case of Niger, which is also an example often used by the EU to showcase a well-functioning partnership in stopping migration to Europe through criminalisation and ‘breaking the business model of human smugglers.’ In this case, penal power is not actually detached from the state. While the EU is both a supranational and inter-governmental entity, I argue it could also be seen as something like ‘pooled European penal power’. This European penal power works through a third state by bolstering this state’s own penal power, without being entirely able to control how this power is in turn utilised in practice. So what is the relation between sovereignty and penal power when the EU border is externalised to West Africa?

European penal power in West Africa

West Africa, and the Sahel region that cuts across the Sahara Desert, have become a priority to the EU and its member states in terms of controlling unwanted mobility. Conceptualising security threats as flows of illicit or dangerous commodities and people crossing borders and spilling into Europe, the EU is now seeking ‘partnerships’ with African regimes to build barriers further south. Substantial efforts are being put into shaping West African penal codes and reinforcing criminal justice and security apparatuses to deal with illicit flows. In order to incentivise an actual change, EU aid and budget support, on which many West African countries depend, is increasingly made conditional upon the adoption of security strategies, the reform of internal security forces and the securing of borders.

One such example is the EU’s much celebrated ‘partnership’ with President Issoufou of Niger. In 2015, conspicuously coinciding with the European ‘migration crisis’, Niger adopted a law criminalising ‘migrant smuggling’. The EU assisted Niger in drafting the law and provided advice, training and capacity-building for its enforcement. This was done, among other, through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission EUCAP Sahel Niger, and through projects financed by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. EU aid to Niger continued to grow, and in December 2017 the European Commission announced 1 billion euro in support by 2020, as Niger had demonstrated ‘strong political willingness and leadership’ to confront challenges. Indeed, in 2016 Nigerien authorities started rigorously enforcing the law, selectively in the northern town of Agadez which had figured in the international press as the hub for migrants travelling to Libya and Algeria. Since then more than 130 ‘migrant smugglers’ have been arrested and their vehicles seized, and the number of migrants crossing into Libya registered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is reported to have dropped. The Niger migrant smuggling law and its enforcement is seen as so successful that the EU wants to replicate it in other Sahel countries as well.

Penal humanitarianism at Europe’s extraterritorial border

The rationale behind the EU’s fight against ‘migrant smugglers’ in Niger is framed as a humanitarian obligation: stopping migrants from travelling through Niger equals saving them from dying in the hands of evil people smugglers or in Libyan detention camps. This is not very different from Libya further north, where the EU’s training of the ‘coast guard’ is justified by saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean. Nor is it very different from the EU’s external borders where, according to Katja Franko and Helene Gundhus, the discourse of protecting the human rights of migrants permeate the borderwork of Frontex officers.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) in Niger and the local population in Agadez are strongly opposed to the criminal category of ‘migrant smuggling’ as it relates to Nigerien reality. Guiding people through the desert has been a noble, traditional role for centuries, and now-called migrant smugglers are not ‘organised crime syndicates’ as the European Commission assumes (also see Sanchez, 2015). Moreover, CSOs claim the new law is de facto suspending the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Protocol on free movement for ECOWAS citizens, which most of the migrants are. Intra-African migration is a crucial livelihood strategy in a region fraught with periodical extreme drought and climate change. Research also documented severe de-stabilising effects of the law enforcement as the economy of the region of Agadez collapsed, leading the local population to lose their livelihoods, fuelling economic frustrations and anger, and increasing armed banditry and general insecurity.

Conclusions

The case of EU policies in Niger corroborates the argument that penal power can take on a humanitarian rationale when it travels. This seems to be particularly the case when criminal justice, migration control, international development and foreign policy intersect. Complicating the relationship between sovereignty and penal power, Niger’s sovereignty is both hollowed out by mediating European ‘pooled’ penal power and at the same time boosted by the co-option of aid into President Issoufou’s personal goals. What is certain is that the security of Europe does not equal the human security of migrants or local Nigerien communities, nor does the latter equal the security of the Nigerien regime.