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Standoffs at sea highlight the shameful criminalization of rescuing migrants

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After being denied a safe harbour, the German humanitarian rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 recently entered into Italian territorial waters following a lengthy standoff with Italian authorities.

The captain of the ship, Carola Rackete, had been seeking a safe port to disembark the remaining 40 survivors rescued two weeks earlier. Thirteen other people were previously allowed off the ship on medical grounds as the ship was left to trace the boundary outside Italian territorial waters, 12 nautical miles from the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

The standoff came to a head in the early hours of June 29. In an effort to bring the migrants to safety after 17 days stranded at sea, the ship entered the port despite not having formal authorization, even though the Sea-Watch 3 had declared a state of emergency.

In the following days, the Alex, owned by the Italian NGO Mediterranea, followed Sea-Watch 3’s lead by entering the Lampedusa port without authorization after a brief standoff.

Standoffs between search-and-rescue NGOs and European Union member states have become increasingly common, turning the Mediterranean into a contested humanitarian space. As hundreds of migrants die trying to make their way across the Mediterranean, we are witnessing a contemporary reemergence of politics at sea.

Contested seas & acts of rescue

The sea is intricately tied to border politics. It’s complex and paradoxical, portrayed as a place of lawlessness and anarchy yet also highly regulated as states seek to impose orderliness at sea. It is both a hyper-political border zone and a place where migrants attempt to make their way to a better life, often with the help of humanitarians.

Rescue is bound to both international legal and seafaring traditions. Any boat in distress is traditionally assisted and its passengers allowed to disembark in a safe harbour. Sea rescue, therefore, can be interpreted as an apolitical or even anti-political act, done in the name of protecting human dignity and relieving suffering regardless of political considerations.

But in the EU today, sea rescues are deeply political acts that cannot be divorced from the humanitarian motivations guiding NGOs. At sea, the right to claim asylum collides with EU border politics. This is clearly seen during standoffs at sea.

Standoff politics

Rescue standoffs are not an entirely new phenomenon. We’ve seen them with cargo ships, fishing vessels and even the Italian coast guard.

But as a number of NGO members I’ve interviewed have noted, rescue efforts changed for NGOs in 2018. That change came with the election of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and his far-right party, which has taken a hardline anti-migrant stance. Rescue NGOs have become his main target as the shift towards “closed ports” has contributed to the overt criminalization rescues at sea.

Beginning in June 2018, we started to see the first instance of this shift to standoff politics with SOS Mediterraneé’s rescue vessel, Aquarius, being denied the right to disembark 629 people. While standoffs continued in a more ad hoc manner, since December 2018, nearly all NGO rescues have ended in some form of standoff with EU member states. At the moment, this trend seems likely to continue.

Standoffs like the most recent events near Lampedusa serve to contain both migrants and NGOs alike. Migrants become stranded on NGO vessels, effectively creating offshore containment areas for rescue boats as they wait for a port to disembark. To be clear, this does not include Libyan ports — and to disembark boats in Libya would violate the principle of non-refoulement.

Despite being rescued, migrants are not yet able to make their request for asylum as they have not yet reached land to make that claim. Instead they sit offshore, often in sight of land, as NGO boats become floating mobile border sites.

Criminalizing rescue

Standoffs are a key evolution in the criminalization process. While most recently evident with the Italian government, the criminalization of rescue humanitarianism is part of a wider trend within the EU and beyond. Despite efforts to address death and suffering at sea, rescue NGOs face increasing criminalization with fines, boat seizure and threats of criminal charges.

In June, the Italian government adopted a decree imposing heavy fines, up to 50,000 euros, on NGOs disembarking migrants in Italy. The Italian Guardia di Finanza even made a special trip to personally serve notice of the decree to the Sea-Watch 3 crew. This most recent standoff is the first real test of Salvini’s decree overtly criminalizing rescue NGOs.

Standoffs are employed as a political tool of exclusion, and are a thinly veiled attempt to push rescue organizations from the sea.

Though EU member states are still reluctantly involved in rescue operations, they are clearly signalling to NGOs that they are no longer welcome, despite previous co-operation.

Solidarity

Standoff politics are not simply a passive indifference to the lives of those rescued and the organizations involved. Rather, they are a clear political re-assertion of state authority and callous punishment for NGOs saving lives at sea.

By showing solidarity with migrants attempting to cross the Med, rescue NGOs make EU border violence visible and challenge state authority at sea. The continued existence and operation of these NGOs stands as a direct political statement against deadly EU border politics.

Drownings can no longer be understood as simply an unfortunate part of migrant journeys through a dangerous environment. Instead, the sea has become part of a border industry that criminalizes both people on the move and the NGOs that help them. This ensures the sea remains a deadly place for migrants.

Standoffs at sea represent yet another attempt by EU officials to obstruct the movement of migrants by producing further bureaucratic blockades to mobility. While Salvini’s use of standoffs would seem to indicate that the policy of “closed ports” is working, NGOs continue to successfully bring migrants to land in European ports one way or another.

Organizations like Sea Watch and others actively fight to keep the sea open so that civil society can operate where states are seemingly reluctant.

The recent standoffs in the Mediterranean make clear there are two sides in these disputes. As global citizens, we must now choose which side we’re on.

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