Tag Archives: Mediterranean

R.I.P., Europe

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This text first appeared as a Fieldnote from Lampedusa on the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) webpage and is re-posted here. Antonio De Lauri is a Senior Researcher at CMI and co-Director of the NCHS.

Lampedusa, 9 October 2019, funeral ceremony for the 13 women who died at sea. Photo: Antonio De Lauri/CMI

Lampedusa, 9 October 2019.

A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on 7 October, took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on 3 October 2013, when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean waters when the fishing boat transporting around 500 people sunk a few hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in an attempt to reach Europe. What happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made, ongoing catastrophe.

According to the latest figures, at least 30 people, including an infant, lost their lives on 7 October. Many are still missing. All the 13 bodies that were initially pulled out of the sea were women. The survivors have only identified four of them.

Raised anchor in Sfax, the boat got into trouble a few miles from the coast of Lampedusa. The engine stopped working properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group of Sub-Saharan women were sitting with their children. The boat capsized when approached by the coast guard, pouring all the Sub-Saharans and Tunisians onboard in the water. Two Tunisian guys told me that, right before the boat capsized, they have been able to through a pregnant woman on the coast guard vessel. In the dark water, they said, it was chaos. “People who could not swim tried to grab us. They can pull you down, they make you drown,” one of them said. “The only thing you can do is to swim away and reach the vessel.” 

A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it. 

The anthropologist Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the international mobility) and are denied this basic right.

Open borders is the only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and, more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor. “Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first” (tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in the past years, often against the will of national governments. But anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations. Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and human exploitation.

It is always illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.

A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on October 7, 2019 took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragegy that occured on October 3, 2013 when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean waters after the fishing boat that was transporting around 500 people began sinking a few hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in the attempt to reach Europe. What happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made, ongoing catastrophe. According to the latest figures, at least 30 people lost their lives on October 7 and 17 are still missing. All the 13 bodies that have been pulled out of the sea were women. Only four of them have been identified by the 22 survivors.

The boat got into trouble a few kilometres from the coast. The boat’s engine stopped working properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group of Sub-Saharan women who had boarde in Libya were sitting with their children (a group of around 15 Tunisians had joined later in Sfax).

A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it.  

The anthropologist Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the international mobility) and are denied this basic right.

Open borders is the only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and, more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor. “Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first” (tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in the past years, often against the will of national governments. But anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations. Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and human exploitation.

It is always illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.

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.