Search and Rescue vessel Dignity I resumes operations in Mediterranean (April 2016).

In April, a rickety, wooden boat carrying roughly 130 migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, leaving no survivors. This tragic incident has become a grim, seasonal occurrence, with more than 350 similar deaths already this year.
The worst is yet to come, as migration researchers predict that 2021 promises to be the deadliest year yet. Partly this bleak forecast is the result of EU countries arresting search and rescue ships that were previously saving migrants at sea during these perilous crossings.

But the deeper reason for this ongoing humanitarian crisis stems from EU countries displacing their responsibility for managing this issue in a variety of ways, including larger nations casting their roles onto coastal countries and NGOs, shifting the burden of migration by pushing back borders, and offering remittance rather than assistance.

Reflection of two migrants sitting cross legged on the floor (August 25, 2016). | Photo by Ricardo Garcia Vilanova MSF

Larger European states shove their authoritative role over incoming asylum seekers to Greece, Malta and quite especially Italy. Meanwhile, these governments pass this work onto NGOs such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known in English as “Doctors Without Borders.”

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Unfortunately, these organizations lack the resources and medical personnel to fulfill such an overwhelming mission and the pandemic has only worsened the situation.

The Italian Red Cross has converted luxury cruise ships into makeshift prisons, chartered by the Italian government and staffed by Red Cross workers in an attempt to quarantine migrants rescued at sea, offshore to prevent them from bringing Covid-19 ashore.

These ships are maintained at a cost of more than one million euros ($1.16 million) each per month and are home to thousands of the displaced, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, who have fled war, torture, poverty, extortion, sexual violence, and forced labor.

However, this flow of migrants across the Mediterranean is not new, as more than 2.5 million have made unauthorized crossings from North Africa to Europe since the 1970s, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM). But recently, this emigration has skyrocketed as more people escape from North Africa to evade war and political instability. In response, European nations have tried to seal this flood, which has ultimately resulted in a journey dubbed by the IOM as “the world’s deadliest.”

Over the last two decades alone, the Mediterranean has swallowed up more than 30,000 people. By 2016, nine separate charities including Médecins Sans Frontières were patrolling international waters and making around 25 percent of the rescues in the Mediterranean. To make matters worse, European governments have taken to criminalizing these NGOs for the jobs that the powers that be should be handling themselves.

“We face prison sentences of up to 15 years and millions of dollars in compensation for saving human lives,” said Óscar Camps, director of Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, at a press conference held in the European Parliament after its main rescue boat was confiscated in Sicily for “promoting illegal immigration.”

In just the last year, Italy has single-handedly performed over 100,000 successful search-and-rescue missions, but recently had to shut down these operations since the EU refused to contribute financially. Consequently, Italy and others have started outsourcing their Coast Guard duties to countries like Tunisia and Libya.

Greater Europe’s efforts instead are focused more on “border control” and less on saving lives.

With the combination of moving its de facto borders further away and a bit of capital, the EU pays other countries to stop travelers from ever arriving at their shores by detaining them earlier in their route. Concretely, this involves the European payment of subsidies to the controversial Libyan and Tunisian Coastguards, according to a report by FTDES.

These coast guards, unlike most others in history, predominantly do not face outward from the Libyan or Tunisian coasts for the sake of protecting against external threats. Instead they are funded to face inward and block people as they attempt to leave Africa and make their way to Europe.

In 2016, as part of an EU effort called Operation Sophia, Italy agreed to provide ships, training, and millions of euros to what remained of Libya’s Coast Guard to reduce the rush of migrants. Shortly thereafter, the coast guard began threatening, boarding, and even opening fire on NGO ships.

This European policy of using proxy maritime forces to preemptively stop asylum seekers has also contributed to the brutality of tens of thousands of migrants dying at sea in perilous attempts to avoid the Coast Guard, but also in systemic rape and human trafficking, and physical abuse that ranges from beatings to shootings, that occur in the detention facilities, quite especially in Libya, where the displaced are taken and held after their voyage.

For example, hundreds of refugees were transported to the Zintan detention center, in the Libyan Nafusa mountains, in September 2018. Over the following year, at least 23 of them died – including one Gambian child and his father, and a Somali teenage girl – due to illness, poor conditions and neglect. Two more people died in 2020: one of alleged sunstroke, and another after a fire broke out.

Sandwiched in an ever-changing custody battle between country and government, and leadership and organization, migrants bear excruciating effects feeling largely alone. Each feeble attempt acts in unison as a collective European effort to reinforce anti-migrant deterrence measures.

As a result, those stuck in Libyan torture camps or drowning off of European coasts remain in a permanent state of limbo, a boundary between two worlds, one guarded for the rich, the other suffered by the poor.

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