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Development of sea rescue

European states are no longer fulfilling their duty to rescue at sea. Civil sea rescue is necessary and saves lives.

When migration across the Mediterranean became illegal

A brief glimpse into the past century: After 1945, Europe welcomed the immigration of cheap labour for the reconstruction and due to a shortage caused by the war. The 1973 economic crisis put an end to the economic miracle and “irrevocably changed the global and European geography of migration flows.” For the reaction of the affected states was, among other things, to make migration more difficult. The tightening of entry regulations laid the foundation for today’s “Fortress Europe” and the criminalisation of people coming to Europe.  

Since then, well over 2.5 million displaced persons have crossed the Mediterranean on the three main routes. Among them the central route: initially from Tunisia to Italy, more rarely from Algeria or Egypt, and since the 2000s with Libya as the primary port of departure. If only the verified figures are taken into account, this route alone has claimed over 17,000 lives since 2014, making the central Mediterranean the deadliest border in the world.

A civilian fleet is emerging

In October 2013 a shipwreck drew worldwide attention: About 390 people drowned off Lampedusa. A few days later Italy launched a large-scale sea rescue operation, the Mare Nostrum. Within a year, it saved over 150,000 people. After Italy had repeatedly called on the other EU member states in vain to find a solution for distributing the costs of the operation and the people rescued, Mare Nostrum was discontinued in October 2014. 

The reluctantly ensuing EU mission Triton had its focus on border security. Its operational area was only off the coasts of Europe and it only had one third of the financial resources of the previous mission. It did not save nearly as many people. At the same time, more and more European money was being channelled into the development of the so-called Libyan coast guard.

It was against this backdrop that the first civil rescue organisations were formed. In June 2015, the MS Sea-Watch set sail for the first time from Lampedusa towards the Search and Rescue Zone (SAR zone) off the Libyan coast, followed by ships from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders / MSF) and later other NGOs.

The wind shifts

At the beginning of the summer of 2017, the civilian fleet was at its peak with 13 ships and Sea Watch’s new Moonbird aircraft. Instead of letting themselves be pressured, however, the state actors used this momentum to withdraw from the issue. This led to a sharp decline in the proportion of people rescued by state and EU ships (from 66% in 2016 to 49% in 2017), while the proportion of civil rescues rose in the opposite direction.

At the same time, civilian rescue vessels were increasingly threatened by the so-called Libyan coast guard. Already in April 2016, armed militias had threatened and boarded Sea-Watch 2, before they again endangered the ship and crew in May 2017 with a breakneck maneuver. In August they fired on and boarded the Bourbon Argos. In September they hijacked the speedboat Speedy including crew to Libya (the crew was released shortly after, the boat was not). In November 2017, finally, a Libyan patrol boat inadvertently even harassed the German naval frigate of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

It was during this period that the criminalisation and state obstruction of civil sea rescue began, which continues to this day. In the summer of 2017, Italian authorities tried to pressure the sea rescue NGOs to sign a controversial code of conduct. Among other things, this code of conduct was supposed to force them to take police officers on board. Only two days after Jugend Rettet refused to sign this “Code of Conduct”, their ship – the Iuventa – was confiscated for alleged contact with smugglers in Italy. Overwhelmed by this climate of hostility, some NGOs withdrew their ships from the Mediterranean.

Shortly afterwards, Malta confiscated the rescue ship Lifeline and initiated proceedings against the captain. Sea-Watch 3 and Sea Fox were also in Malta’s port at the time and were confiscated by local authorities. When all required inspections of the Sea-Watch 3 were passed just under a month later, the ship nevertheless remained detained. It was not until October 2018, almost four months later, that the ship could leave Malta. Four months in which over 500 people drowned in the central Mediterranean. 

The movement SEEBRÜCKE arises

It is also four months during which tens of thousands took to the streets, under the banner of the SEEBRÜCKE (“SEA BRIDGE”) and the cities in solidarity, against the dying in the Mediterranean. Together with the civil sea rescue NGOs, they have since then been drawing attention to the fact that it cannot and should not become a permanent state of affairs that private organisations instead of states are in charge of sea rescue in the Mediterranean! They immediately demand from European politics safe escape routes, a decriminalisation of civil sea rescue, the resumption of state sea rescue, and a humane reception of refugees.

Source: This text is based on the chronicle “No Borders Navy” by Chris Grodotzki, http://www.hinterland-magazin.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Hinterland-Magazin_43-38.pdf