Tag Archives: Frontex

Preventing the Work of Rescue Vessels in the Mediterranean Will Not Save More Migrants

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This text is based on an op-ed which was first published in Norwegian in Aftenposten 19 November 2019: Å hinder redningsskipenes arbeid vil ikke redde flere migranter. It has been translated by Fidotext and published on the PRIO blog, and is re-published here.

Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant – migrants’ lifejackets. 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.

The Norwegian-registered vessel Ocean Viking, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, has recently been at the centre of a debate that has become dominated by one assumption: that search-and-rescue (SAR) operations are encouraging people to attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

The logic is problematic for several reasons, and I will try to address some of them: 1) the statistics suggest otherwise; 2) it ignores the wider picture – that a range of complex factors drive people to flee their homes, with some heading towards the Mediterranean; and 3) the theory is being used to legitimize non-rescue of boats in distress.

A temptingly simple explanation

The logic has a name, the pull factor – in other words, that SAR operations contribute to “pull” more people to attempt the crossing. The power of this idea lies partly in how it provides a simple and apparently clear-cut explanation for a complex problem — a problem that we otherwise have a hard time understanding, and even harder time addressing. It is also powerful because it is difficult to refute: it is hard to know exactly what makes people decide to embark on this dangerous sea crossing, and there are probably as many reasons as there are refugees and other migrants.

Old rhetoric

In 2004, Erna Solberg, then Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, argued against a local initiative in Trondheim, which sought to provide food and accommodation to asylum seekers lacking refugee status. Solberg claimed that the initiative would “in practice mean unfettered immigration by people from the Horn of Africa”. Today the idea that any measure intended to ensure a minimum level of subsistence for refugees or other migrants will help “pull” more people in the same direction pervades European policy on migration, from Greece and France to Norway.

The pull factor and SAR operations

In particular, the legacy of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum has served to boost the pull-factor theory about SAR missions in the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum was established in response to a major shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013, which was described by high-ranking EU politicians and the Italian president as a “shame” for Europe. Mare Nostrum was run by the Italian navy as a “military-humanitarian” operation. The number of refugees and other migrants who attempted to make the crossing had already begun to rise before the operation started, and even while Mare Nostrum was saving tens of thousands of lives at sea, the numbers continued to rise.

Critics quickly concluded that the increase was linked to the presence of the SAR operation, and that Mare Nostrum was directly and indirectly encouraging more people to make the crossing. This allegation, which was seen at the time as controversial, has nonetheless become almost conventional wisdom in today’s policy-making.

What do the numbers tell us?

Several researchers have examined the statistical relationship between the numbers of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and SAR capacity. One study, conducted by Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruitjers, looks at the period between late 2013 and 2017. They divide this period into three periods: an initial period with high SAR capacity (October 2013 – October 2014); a subsequent period with low SAR capacity following the launch of the Frontex-led Operation Triton (November 2014 – May 2015); and a third period with high SAR capacity (Triton II with increased SAR capacity, plus more vessels operated by NGOs). The numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean began to increase before Mare Nostrum was implemented, and continued to increase after it was shut down and throughout the period of low SAR capacity. In fact, the numbers increased most sharply during the period of low SAR capacity, rather than during the two periods with high SAR capacity. This same period also saw the sharpest increase in the number of drownings, compared with the periods before and after.

Another, still ongoing, study conducted by Matteo Villa at ISPI in Milan, is examining the number of migrants leaving Libya in 2019 compared with the availability of SAR vessels on the actual dates the migrants’ boats left shore. The findings show that the likelihood of boats leaving Libya is not affected by the availability of SAR vessels, but rather by wind and weather conditions. Figures from the IOM and UNHCR show that so far this year, on average, 31 migrants leave shore on days when SAR vessels are operating, against 41 migrants on days with no SAR vessels.

A narrow perspective

Even while these figures sow doubt about the existence of any direct link, it is important to point out that the theory itself, assuming that the availability of x number of SAR vessels affects the number of people attempting the sea crossing, is built on a problematic premise. The thinking is based on a very narrow perspective, which views SAR vessels as a unique factor in a world where the availability of more or fewer SAR vessels is the sole factor influencing an apparently inexhaustible number of migrants ready to attempt the crossing. The wider picture, with its multiple factors that either hinder migration or make it possible or necessary for people to leave their homes, is too complex to understand and too difficult to do anything about. This line of thinking posits NGOs’ activities as the simple explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible situation, and thereby also the factor that needs to be addressed in order to resolve the situation.

Humanitarian rhetoric used to legitimize not saving lives

The main problem with this hypothesis however is not only that it appears to be unfounded and based on a narrow perspective, but that it is being used to legitimize both the closed ports and an active policy of not coming to the rescue of vessels in distress. There is in fact a duty, enshrined in the international law of the sea, to provide assistance to vessels in distress and take the rescued to a safe harbour.

Regardless of one’s political standing, it is no easy matter to argue against saving lives at sea. That is also why many of those advancing this argument. are trying to prove that SAR operations will “entice” more people to attempt the crossing, and thereby putting more migrants at greater risk. As such, the policy of non-rescue is presented as a policy that protects more people from drowning.

But hindering the operations of SAR vessels will not save the lives of more migrants, and it will also not address the complex causes of displacement and migration.

Penal Humanitarianism: Moral Discomfort at the Border (Part III)

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This is the third 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. This post delves into how individuals tasked with carrying out state policies on border control react to direct encounters with human suffering, and the implications such interpersonal encounters may have on border studies as a whole.

Moral Discomfort at the Border: Understanding Penal Humanitarianism in Practice

A growing body of recent scholarship has pointed out the intricate connections between the exercise of penal power and humanitarianism in general, as well humanitarianism at the border (see e.g. Fassin; Bosworth; Lohne). This research has shown the centrality of humanitarian ideals and language within different penal sites and programs such as prison building programs abroad, the International Criminal Court and various border control practices. Humanitarian ideals are exposed as central to governmental discourses, disembedding penal power from the nation state, and often used to legitimize highly controversial border practices as matters of saving and protecting lives or promoting human rights.

Catania, Sicily, April 23 2015. Over 220 people arrived at 8am by ship at the Sicilian port. Catania RC set up a clinic to offer medical treatment, psychosocial support and counseling along with fresh water and shoes for migrants.
Image by IFRC.

Mary Bosworth, for example, observes that ‘human rights rhetoric and practices can justify the exercise of coercive state powers, even if their supporters wish it were otherwise’. In these contexts, humanitarianism is understood to function as a smokescreen and a technique for glossing over the ethically problematic and messy realities of border control. As Didier Fassin suggests: ‘Humanitarianism has this remarkable capacity: it fugaciously and illusorily bridges the contradictions of our world, and makes the intolerableness of its injustices somewhat bearable. Hence, its consensual force.’ In this post, we wish to contribute to the debate by drawing attention to the somewhat neglected aspects of humanitarianism in practice.

In our own work, we have analysed the deployment of humanitarian language and the discourse of human rights in Frontex operations. The precarious situation at Europe’s external borders is creating an irresolvable tension between the interests of European states to seal off their borders and the respect for fundamental human rights. The paradox of the centrality of ‘saving lives at sea’ in EU policy documents illuminates the disconnection between the performative aspects of humanitarianism and its operational use. The study revealed obvious contradictions and disjunctions between the objectives of state security and a lack of concern for migrants’ vulnerability, transferred into member states’ national risk assessments indicators.

However, we also uncovered the centrality of humanitarian sentiments in the narratives of police officers tasked with performing everyday border control. Indeed, the interviews with Frontex officers revealed a rather complex picture. While the humanitarian discourse clearly does a certain kind of performative ‘work’, it also seems to be to some extent internalized and appropriated by actors on the ground. Many officers talked with deeply felt seriousness and compassion about providing clothing and medicine for cold, wet and sick migrants. Some experienced the situation to be so serious that they drew analogies to the WW2. As one experienced officer described the situation in Greek detention centres: ‘It was like watching, it is terrible to say that, but it was like watching a war movie from 1943. Simply like that. Coming close to concentration camps.’ The controversial concentration camp analogy is, therefore, not only used by impassioned outside critics, but also by people within the system.

Although these stories of compassion and concern can be understood as a form of narrative self-legitimation work in a system which suffers from acute deficits in legitimacy (Bosworth; Ugelvik ), we would like to suggest that they also do a more complex work which may merit further analytical attention. In our study, compassion was often expressed as a result of having a more direct and closer contact with human suffering, which led the officers not only to sympathize with migrants, but also to see them in a more positive way and as more trustworthy. One officer described:

You get a slightly different understanding, because you get so much closer to the person, the credibility of the person standing before you is much stronger. I have registered asylum seekers [in Norway] until I’m exhausted (…) All of them are saying the same. (…) While here, you do have real people standing in front of you, telling a trustworthy story (Police Officer, de-briefer, PU6).

Here, compassion may still have performative and self-legitimating aspects (not least in relation to the interviewers), yet it is also an emotion which arises due to the physical closeness to suffering, resembling ‘the living presence’ of the Other described by Emmanuel Levinas. This presence is experienced and is different from, and not reducible to, words and ideas. As one officer said: ‘you see the hopelessness in it. I have in a sense understood it for several years, but now I can see the reality of what they are talking about’ (PU4).

We would like to suggest that such sentiments of understanding, compassion and a wish to help, which arise from direct, on the ground human encounters (although related) should be distinguished from the performative aspects of humanitarianism visible particularly in political discourse and policy documents. They demand a more nuanced understanding of the meaning of humanitarianism within border studies and an acknowledgement of the ambivalent feelings and moral discomfort inherent in  doing border work. This discomfort is dealt quite differently by individuals performing border control and is felt more acutely by some than others. Nevertheless, amplified by intense public critique, moral discomfort seems to be an inherent part of doing border control and can in some cases lead to outright resistance.

For example, our interviews with police officers performing border control in Norway demonstrated clear disagreement in how the police should use their newly acquired right to conduct border checks. Random territorial control of foreign citizens in the city center and targeted controls of families in detention centers were criticised for being immoral and inhumane. There was also a resentment of using deportation numbers as official performance targets for police work. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions, which are frequently talked about in relation to migrants, were thus also created within the police force. As one officer from Oslo Police District described:

Well, it can be said that internally, within the police, there are different understandings of how to apply immigration law. It is just as well if this came out. Some look at this from an ethical perspective – that is us – while others are more concerned with performance targets and such. And the ethical side thinks that performance targets are a wrong way of doing the work, and admits that this is a sensitive field to work in, while it seems to me that the others, the other side, have not reflected on this well enough. I know that within the Police Immigration Unit there are disagreements as well.

Border studies have, so far, paid relatively scarce attention to such internal resistance and the moral and ethical discomfort of performing border control (see Bosworth for valuable exception). By seeing humanitarian rationalities primarily as a way of cementing and legitimizing the status quo, we may be operating with a rather one-dimensional understanding of humanitarianism and failing to differentiate between different aspects and actors. While one of the main strengths of studies of humanitarianism has been to connect broad policy issues to questions of morality and emotion, this slippage may be also one of its main drawbacks due to the obscuring of on the ground inter-personal dynamics. Moreover, the field may be slow in recognizing resistance, and potential for it, coming from within the system. Consequently, a question can be asked whether border studies may be poorly equipped to fully understand the dialectics of change arising from the moral discomfort of doing border work, as well as liable to reproduce its own ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions.