Fewer boats, more deaths

The route and the boats are growing more and more dangerous

Marina Militare A chopper from the Italian navy rescuing a migrant.

Bart Braun

The European policy on refugees from around the Mediterranean is "terribly hypocritical", claims researcher Eugenio Cusumano. The so-called humanitarian mission of an allied naval force just leads to more deaths.

"In August, I sailed with the crew of a lifeboat belonging to the German organisation Sea-Watch", recalls Eugenio Cusumano, a lecturer at Internal Relations. He is studying private rescue organisations and their role on the international scene.

"On our first day in the Dead Zone – the part of the Mediterranean where the most migrants die – we found a small wooden boat with some Syrian families: children and old people. It was a wonderful experience: the children were grateful, the parents embraced us. It was all the more touching because six people from another boat had drowned that same day.

"A few days later, a similar boat belonging to Médecins Sans Frontières was attacked by a speed boat; its crew had machine guns and shot at the ship, probably in an attempt to take hostages.

"The MSF team withdrew into a special panic room. Our boat wasn’t equipped with one of those, so if it had happened to us, I’d be dead now, or a hostage in Libya. We discussed it with the crew: all the Sea-Watch people wanted to stay, despite the risks. Nonetheless, Headquarters forced them to return to port."

In recent years, an average of three hundred thousand migrants crossed the Mediterranean per year; last year’s million was an exception. Syrians are now in the minority; most boats bring Africans from Nigeria, Eritrea and other countries. Partly because of the EU’s deal with Turkey and the simple fact that there is hardly anyone in Syria left to flee, refugee organisations estimate that this year’s figure will be about 320,000.

You can’t take a plane if you don’t have a visa, and the Spanish enclaves in Africa are fortifications that are firmly closed to migrants. So, if you want to get to Europe, you need to put your life in the hands of human smugglers and their overcrowded boats. Not everyone makes it: last year, 3,771 people drowned. The death count for 2016 so far is already over 4,600. That means there are fewer refugees but more deaths. There are two reasons for that, as Cusumano explains.

"Now that Turkey is making it more difficult to leave from there, more refugees are forced to take the route across the central part of the Mediterranean. They usually leave from Libya, like the Syrians I found with Sea-Watch, but the sea is more dangerous there than between Turkey and Greece. It quite often means at least 36 hours of sailing across very unpredictable water."

The second reason is the consequence of our European policy - Operation Sophia, a joint mission of the European navies aimed to stop human trafficking.

For instance, if Médecins Sans Frontières find a boat full of migrants, they take everyone on board. Then a military ship – there’s even an aircraft carrier involved in Sophia – destroys the boat. Cusumano continues: "They usually pour petrol on it and set it on fire." As a result, Libyan human smugglers send increasingly flimsy boats out to sea, which sink more often. There’s not always an NGO lifeboat to help them out.

"The terribly hypocritical part is that Sophia was launched for so-called humanitarian reasons", the researcher sighs. "The aim was of course to control migration and politicians have their mandate for that. But the result is that more people are dying."

Sea-Watch and Médecins Sans Frontières are not the only organisations on the Mediterranean. Cusumano has listed all the private rescue organisations in the scientific journal Marine Policy: six different organisations have nine ships in active service, some of which are equipped with smaller lifeboats, drones or jet skis. Together, they claim to have rescued some 25,000 people, although not all of those people were fished out of the sea, as Cusumano explains. "Countries have different opinions on what exactly a ‘boat in distress’ is. The American coastguard only use the term for ships that are literally sinking. The problem with that definition is that you are often too late to save the occupants. The Italian coastguard say: every refugee boat is in distress. They are overcrowded and often don’t have enough fuel to make the trip across."

Saving sailors-in-distress is not only a good deed, the Italian stresses. We all have a legal obligation to rescue them too. "This is the oldest piece of international law there is, even older than actual legislation. You are morally obliged to prevent people from drowning. And it’s logical too: next time, it could be you in need of help. That thought is laid down in a number of international treaties which have been signed by all European nations. If you don’t help, you could be prosecuted."

On the other hand, if you do help, you must take lots of rescued people on board. What do you do with them? "You are legally obliged to drop them off at the nearest safe place." There’s a civil war raging in Libya, so that’s not safe. Where then? "Malta doesn’t want them. There are accusations flying that Malta will quite happily let the boats sail into Italian waters. Only Italy allows you to drop people off."

Aren’t the private rescue boats actually helping the human smugglers? "There’s an element of truth in that", Cusumano answers. "The smugglers use it as advertising: they say that you only have to sail for a few hours in their less than seaworthy boats until you are picked out of the water by one of the rescue organisations."

On the other hand, the rescue capacity has increased while the number of migrants has dropped. So the boats don’t encourage more migration, according to Cusumano. "In 2004, a German organisation was prosecuted for being an accessory to human smuggling: they entered an Italian port after Malta, Italy and Greece had all refused to admit the ship with 37 refugees on board. The organisation was acquitted: they did not have a profit motive and they did have a legal obligation to help those people. That case made it reasonably clear where you stand legally if you help people.

"The refugee crisis is one the biggest challenges of our time, and there is no single, simple solution. There should be a public European rescue organisation. The charity missions alleviate the situation slightly, but they won’t and can’t keep doing it. Governments and their armies have more money and better ships that can be armed against marauders. The European border control agency Frontex will become a European coastguard next year, but that change seems merely cosmetic at the moment because their boats are not suitable for rescues. Moreover, we should of course tackle the reasons why people risk the boats, although that’s easier said than done. Anyway, we should invest more in making Libya a stable country. We need to tackle human smugglers on land, instead of just at sea."

He predicts that the streams of people won’t dry up within the next decade, at least. "But it’s not too much to deal with. Remember, when Yugoslavia disintegrated, a million refugees came to Europe. Three hundred thousand migrants to 500 million Europeans is doable, as long as there is a way of distributing them between different countries. At the moment, Italy and Greece are shouldering most of the burden while other EU countries are violating European law by not taking in more people."

With winter here, the number of migrant boats on the Mediterranean will drop; most of the organisations and their lifeboats will take a winter break. What about next year? "The refugee situation will be the same", Cusumano replies. "The NGO-boats will keep helping them. Money is a problem, though: more and more people are tired of the crisis. Perhaps something will change in Italy and Greece. In Greece, Golden Dawn is very popular and if the Italian government falls on 4 December following the referendum on the constitution, I expect a stricter cabinet will take its place. At the moment, Italy is the only place where ships can drop off their refugees. If, next year, the new government won’t allow it, the human toll will be much higher."

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