Rescuing shipwrecked migrants in the Mediterranean: how EU policy must evolve

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Voices rise from all sides to warn of the financial and political limits that international humanitarian aid now faces in its deployment capacity.

Government funds, which represent 80% of annual resources for this international humanitarian aid, reflect choices directly linked to the political priorities of donor countries. The rescue situation for migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean illustrates in a caricatured way the logic of "compassion with variable geometry", while it is in this sea that we now count the most deaths on the way of migration. From 2014 to January 2024, the number of deaths is estimated at almost 29 people.

A moral and legal obligation

We can only regret that no explicit mention is made of the question of rescuing shipwrecked victims in the very recent publication of the humanitarian strategy of the French government for its 2023-2027 programming. However, it is not too late.

Let us recall in particular that France affirms in this strategy that it will "defend humanitarian action as a European priority" (point 4.1.b of the plan), and that it will pay particular attention to women and children, particularly fragile populations among the migrants, especially among those who attempt the crossing (points 2.4 and 2.5 of the plan). 14% of all people arriving in Italy in 2016 after crossing the Mediterranean were unaccompanied children. Between 2014 and 2020, at least 2 children died or disappeared during their migratory journey. Women represent 20% of maritime arrivals in Europe, with a less chance of surviving the crossing than men.

Number of deaths along migratory routes from January 1, 2014 to January 27, 2024. Click to zoom. International Organization for Migration (IOM)

There is one aspect of migration issues that does not lend itself to harsh and sometimes Manichean political controversies: it is the duty to search for and assist shipwreck victims. Because this obligation falls within a legal framework which is not subject to debate, whether with regard to law of the sea or from the point of view of IHL.

Therefore, as reaffirmed the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), the inertia of the governments of EU Member States – under the guise of the fight against migration – in the face of recurring tragedies is intolerable on moral, legal and political levels.

Certain United Nations agencies also spoke out publicly in 2023 to denounce the situation prevailing in the Mediterranean. In a joint statement, IOM, UNHCR and UNICEF publicly called on States to “take their responsibilities".

The abandonment of the Mare Nostrum system, witness to the lack of solidarity of European countries

The shipwreck that occurred on October 3, 2013 in Lampedusa, which cost the lives of 366 migrants, caused deep emotion in Italy. Enrico Letta, then President of the Council, launched a military-humanitarian operation called Mare Nostrum, intended both to rescue shipwrecked migrants and to deter smugglers.

This device, often praised for its effectiveness and humanity, had a short-lived lifespan.

The cost of the military deployment was high, estimated at around 9 million euros per month. It was almost entirely borne by Italy, the EU having granted only minimal aid, an increase of which Rome consistently requested.

In addition to its cost, this operation was also criticized because, according to its detractors, it would have had the opposite effect to that sought in that it would have facilitated the smuggling of illegal immigrants. Indeed, some smugglers were content to transport their passengers to Italian waters using a mother ship, before abandoning them aboard small boats, then picked up by Italian ships operating within the framework of Mare Nostrum.

For these reasons, many personalities in Italy called for the operation to be stopped. This was particularly the case of Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. He finally announced on August 27, 2014 that this operation would be replaced by "Frontex Plus", a border control program managed and financed by the EU.

Mare Nostrum therefore ended on 1er November 2014. As a replacement, Frontex will set up Operation Triton, much less ambitious, which will be content to patrol Italian territorial waters, having neither mandate nor equipment to carry out search and rescue operations on the high seas.

The abandonment of Mare Nostrum thus reflected a triple failure of the EU: the absence of solidarity between member countries, in particular in their support for Italy; an inability to measure the determination of people wanting at all costs to escape the violence of their country of origin; and a collective myopia about the risks faced by migrants during wild crossings.

This withdrawal is all the more unacceptable given that the EU is also one of the major contributors to the annual envelope devoted to emergency international aid.

The problem of the Libyan search and rescue zone

The division of the Mediterranean into search and rescue (SAR) zones.

A SAR (“Search and rescue”) zone is a maritime space of defined dimensions, where a coastal State provides search and rescue services, starting with the coordination of operations. A SAR zone extends over both territorial and international waters; it is not an area where the state enjoys extensive authority or rights, but rather a space of responsibility.

Within its SAR zone, the coastal State must ensure care and coordination of rescue at sea, and find a safe place to disembark survivors. A “safe place” is defined as a destination where the shipwrecked will have their basic vital needs ensured (shelter, food, water, access to care, etc.); where they will be safe; and where they will be able to benefit from an examination of their rights with a view to a possible request for asylum.

The Libyan SAR zone, the main theater of intervention for rescue ships, was created in 2018. Since then, it has concentrated dysfunctions and violence that have been kept silent by the EU, which finances the system set up in this country.

Until 2018, Libya had not declared a SAR zone off its territorial waters, due to lack of a sufficient fleet and, above all, a reliable "coordination center", capable of communicating with the high seas. To avoid a “Bermuda triangle” of relief, Italy then de facto – if not de jure – broadened its scope of activity. On June 28, 2018, Tripoli suddenly declared with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) its "SAR" zone and its "Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC), formalized overnight. The Italians then handed over to the Libyans.

This development is the result of a vast European support program for Libya dating from 2017, endowed with 46 million euros, which aimed both to strengthen the Union's borders, to fight against illegal immigration and to improve rescue operations at sea. This plan provided financial resources of 6 million euros per year, over several years, to help Tripoli create its own SAR and its Coordination Center. To this budget were added 1,8 million euros, via the Union Internal Security Fund, without knowing precisely the content of the requests made to the Libyan authorities so that they play this role.

Despite the recurring denunciations by NGOs of the behavior of the Libyan coast guard, the EU welcomes the results obtained.

We are therefore witnessing in the Mediterranean the implementation of a strategy of “discarding” the entity which claims to be the largest democracy in the world, in favor of Libyan authorities with obscure and violent behavior, and – by transfer of mandate – from NGOs. However, these organizations are regularly subjected by the authorities of countries bordering the Mediterranean to deliberate strategies of harassment and prevention of action, under the indifferent gaze of the EU.

The astonishing European strategy: not helping, and hindering those who help

“Primum non nocere” (first of all, do no harm): this formula – familiar to health professionals – does not seem to inspire European policy, quite the contrary.

The EU, despite its economic and financial power, refuses to have any financial involvement in its support for NGOs working off its coasts.

It supports the incessant and long journeys of boats and the survivors taken on board to enable them to disembark in safe ports.

Thus, in December 2023, the Ocean Viking, ship chartered by SOS Méditerranée, has rescued 26 people. For the disembarkation of the survivors, the distant port of Livorno was assigned to the ship. This port was more than 1 km (several days of navigation) from the rescue zone for the shipwrecked, while there were crucial needs for search and rescue capabilities at that time.

This scenario was renewed from January 2024: new designation, for disembarkation, of Livorno, 1 km from the pick-up point from a group of 71 people (including 5 women and 16 unaccompanied minors). The result of these obligatory designations, the circumvention of which exposes rescuers to immediate sanctions, is both the inability of the boat to act for several days, and the increase in fuel expenses that the association must incur (more than 500 000 euros additional cost in 2023).

“Safe port” imposed on the SOS Méditerranée ship in December 2023, with 26 people rescued on board.

The crucial question of the recurring immobilization of rescue vessels

Provided by the author

A snapshot of the overall situation of rescue vessels as the summer of 2021 approaches shows the repeated paralysis of rescue resources. Almost all ships was thus immobilized in mid-June 2021. THE Geo Barents, chartered by the NGO Médecins sans frontières since May 26, was then the only operational NGO boat in the central Mediterranean, with theAita Mari from the Spanish collective Maydayterraneo.

If some ships were held at the dock to carry out quarantine or maintenance operations, most were immobilized by the Italian authorities for much more opaque reasons, in particular for "irregularities of a technical nature".

Le Sea-Eye 4 of the German NGO Sea-Eye was blocked on June 4 by the Italian coast guard for "non-compliance with safety rules" after having carried out quarantine at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo. The same went for theOpen Arms (Proactiva Open Arms), the Louise Michel (Banksy), the Mare Jonio (Mediterranea Saving Humans) as well as for Sea Watch 3 and 4 (Sea-Watch) and theAlan Kurdi (Sea-Eye), immobilized by the Italian authorities for almost six months in Sardinia.

This strategy of immobilization and retention of ships has been strengthened from the beginning of 2023.

Italian legislation then integrated the effects of decree law "Piantedosi", which limits the ability of search and rescue vessels belonging to NGOs to carry out several consecutive rescue operations. Any deviation, for reasons sometimes as futile as they are pernicious, can now lead the vessel and its crew to forced immobilization.

The questioning of the Italian minister at the origin of the decree by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, to request the withdrawal of the decree, however, remained without effect.

The climatic disturbances of the Mediterranean: “the médicanes”

Thus, situations of “non-assistance to people in danger” unfold with complete impunity, even though crossing attempts take place in a sea known for its sudden outbursts of anger. The rise in power of these storms is today known under the neologism "medicine".

Théodore Gudin, “Gale of January 7, 1831 in the harbor of Algiers.” National Maritime Museum, Paris

Médicane (contraction of “Mediterranean Hurricane”) is a stormy low pressure system generating strong winds in the Mediterranean, and swirling around a center with a warm core. These storms are more scientifically called "Mediterranean subtropical cyclones". Even if their size and power are significantly less significant than those of a real tropical cyclone (the winds rarely reach 150 km/h, except in the most extreme cases), they possess some similar characteristics.

During the rescues carried out in December 2023, the Ocean Viking was not only assigned a distant disembarkation port, but also suffered a refusal, on his way to Livorno, when he asked to be able to take shelter in a protected port, while a storm of force 8 was raging …

History of the trajectories of medicans recorded between 2000 and 2020. Navigation-Mac

Urgent and concrete measures are therefore imperative to reaffirm the humanitarian dimension of the actions developed by the relief ships and the priority of non-nocturnal primum.

Necessary developments in the organization of rescue at sea

It is appropriate to recall the moral and political intolerability of the inertia of the governments of the EU Member States in the face of recurring tragedies, and to put an end to the vicious circle caused by European funding for Libya and the Tunisia, now the main starting point for crossing attempts.

A reaffirmation of the elements of international, European and national law concerning the imperative implementation of relief could be based on the explanation of the reference texts which govern the law of the sea and international humanitarian law.

These elements of rights could usefully include the explanation of the criminal convictions to which people who refuse to rescue the shipwrecked are exposed. The crews of ships which come across boats in distress – and who could intervene – deviate, by not coming to the aid of boats in distress, from the imperative assistance to people in danger.

It is also necessary to increase the transparency of the support mechanisms implemented for the Libyan and Tunisian authorities by the EU, to investigate the nature and use of resources (equipment, financing, training, HR, etc.) , and to implement accountability mechanisms effective.

It is also necessary to equip ourselves with all necessary means to identify the drowned whose bodies were found. This identification is imperative so that their inalienable humanity is reaffirmed, and the means of objectively informing the families of the deceased.

More generally, the central Mediterranean, as well as other theaters of humanitarian crisis on the high seas, must be recognized as humanitarian space.

Bilateral (state) and European donors (ECHO), and multilaterals (including the United Nations) must integrate the central Mediterranean into their financing plans for international humanitarian aid.

Search and rescue operations cannot be criminalized for what they are, but recognized as humanitarian operations and protected as such.

Effective coordination of search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean must be put in place by the riparian countries concerned, with the support of the EU. European states must cooperate more closely and more effectively to improve the conduct of rescue operations themselves.

The procedures for assigning a “safe place” for the disembarkation of survivors must be clarified, systematized and improved with a view to facilitating rescues. The deliberate – unreasoned – assignment of very distant ports for the disembarkation of shipwrecked people must be prohibited. This strategy permanently "undresses" the weak existing means of rescue for shipwrecked people, a significant proportion of whom are minors. It increases the risk of fatal shipwrecks. It is incomprehensible at a time when Europe is advocating environmental exemplary behavior.

Restrictive and repetitive measures to immobilize ships, sometimes for spurious reasons, must stop.

All of these requests were the subject, in France, of a emergency declaration from the CNCDH, published in Official Journal on October 23, 2023.

The device Mare Nostrum continues to serve as a benchmark. Humanitarian organizations are calling for the united and concrete reinvestment of European States in rescues in the Mediterranean. They cannot be satisfied with the sole delegation of responsibility that they have inherited by default of EU public policies, as an antidote to the uncontrolled violence in force in the countries of the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

The recent signing of "Pact on Migration and Asylum" is not reassuring for the future. By retaining a definition of the new concept of "instrumentalization of migration" which could include NGOs if they "aim to destabilize the Union", the pact leaves the field open to European States for criminalize civilian relief and rescue organizations at sea.

The composition of the future European Parliament, which forecasts show will be dominated by the right, after the June 2024 elections, could have consequences on the management of shipwrecks at the gates of Europe. The role and vigilance of civil society organizations thus remain of crucial importance.


Pierre Micheletti recently published "You are Younis Ibrahim Jama", a novel inspired by real events whose action takes place between Sudan, Chad and France.

Pierre Micheletti, Head of the “Health – Solidarity – Precarity” diploma at the Faculty of Medicine of Grenoble, Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of InfoChrétienne.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Ververidis Vasilis

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