Recovered or Saved? Criminalisation of the Sea Missions and Still More Slaughter At Sea

A few hours ago the news broke of the latest, horrendous shipwreck off the coast of Libya, in which it is thought around 240 people lost their lives, according to the account of the NGO Pro-Activa Open Arms, which recovered five cadavers found near to two empty rubber boats. On March 20th another 38 deaths were confirmed off the Libyan coast. The migrants had been drifting on two rubber boats which were then “saved” by the Libyan Coast Guard.

The Ocean Carrier docks in at Pozzallo

This is what we know via independent journalists working on the shores to the south of the Mediterranean, news which is rarely broadcast in the popular press. The alleged “rescue mission” by the Libyans seems anything but the saving of human lives. What awaits the migrants who are recovered at sea like this is a return to the violence they had only just left behind, until more money can be found to pay for them to take flight once more. The ties which exist between the Libyan Coast Guard and the big families of human traffickers are common knowledge, but Italy, with the EU’s support, is continuing discussions to refine the shaky agreement with Tripoli, in order to take control of and put a halt to migrants’ journeys towards Italy and Europe more generally. An agreement which would be extremely difficult to manage. Though the deal still has no clear developments, Italy’s wishes are clear enough: to externalise border control and hand it over to countries which provide no guarantee for the protection of human rights.

The Libyan Coast Guard is being trained up, and thought dedicated to agreements with Tripoli, while at the same time the NGOs running the sea rescue missions are being criminalised with ferocity. The public prosecutor for Catania has claimed to the Schengen Commission that “the immediate intervention of the NGO ships makes investigations into the “facilitators” of criminal organisations useless, rendering the investigations every more difficult.”

With a total turning of the tables, the source of the problem is thus hidden away – that is, the possibility of safe and legal routes for those fleeing – while laying the blame on those who are trying to reduce the number of victims of the continuous massacres at sea which have been going on for years. It is quite clear that those who criminalise the NGO sea rescue missions do not take into account the well-being of the migrants who are “saved” , because there is no question about this. The rescue operations carried out by merchant vessels are many times more dangerous, and sometimes fatal, during the maneuvers necessary for rescue on high sea, and their ability to provide first aid to the refugees is frequently nil. Almost a year ago, on 18 April 2016, the researchers from Forensic Oceanography, University of London, in collaboration with WatchTheMed published “Death by Rescue”. The analyses and data comparison not only refutes the claim that the presence of “humanitarian” ships at sea might have contributed to more death, but also shows that in fact they have been fundamental to making up for the serious logistical gaps remaining after the winding down of the Mare Nostrum operation.

The same prosecutor in Catania also made an important statement on the issue of the “alleged boat drivers”: “The young boat drivers forced by criminal organisations to take charge of boats full of migrants do so in a state of necessity. For this reason, they cannot be considered to have committed the crime of aiding illegal immigration.” This claim which we support entirely, and which we hope might lead to a real change in the investigative procedures to which we have been witness, even up till yesterday. The landing of the Echo at Pozzallo on Monday, with 369 migrants on board, was immediately followed by the news of the arrest of 5 “alleged boat drivers”. We also met a dozen people on the street after they had literally been “chucked out” of prison after a few weeks. They tell us stories of the horror and torture they underwent in Libya, and from their account we know that they did not receive even the most basic information and protection which is meant to be provided to everyone at the landings. And yet the investigations into the “alleged boat drivers” and the checking of people’s nationalities, for the sake of future expulsions and refoulments, take priority at every landing operation, even when those arriving cannot even stand on their own two feet. The people we meet on the street are the result of all this.

The conditions of the migrants who are arriving are increasingly traumatic. In the recent landing of the Aquarius at Catania, and of the Ocean Carrier at Pozzallo, there were various people with gunshot wounds, while at Augusta there was the usual undignified, and illegitimate, lack of a “welcoming” reception. On March 20th the Italian Coast Guard vessel, the Dattilo, docked in at Augusta with 1,477 migrants, recovered during 7 different rescue operations. Among them there were 200 unaccompanied minors, and many women. Hundreds of them spent the night on board the ship, while just under a thousand were crammed into the port’s tent-city the next day. Single children, women and men all together: all of them first and foremost available as numbers for the police, and only perhaps tomorrow people with the right to individual protection.

The merchant vessel Ocean Carrier at Pozzallo

On the morning of March 22nd, 497 migrants then arrived at Pozzallo, in the second landing at the East Sicilian port within 24 hours. This time it was a merchant navy vessel, the Ocean Carrier, which came in, and the horrendous condition of those who were on board was visible throughout the phase in which the ship came into the dock. Migrants were crammed on board the container, stuck in chance positions, still wavering between the fear of disappearing at sea and the hope of a better future. Among them there were around 60 Syrians, together with many Bangladeshi citizens (as on Monday), as well as people from Subsaharan Africa. There was no medical professional on board the ship, and there was not even appropriate care provided during the first medical screenings. As well as gunshot wounds, the migrants showed evident signs of dehydration and malnutrition. The pregnant women were not monitored, and throughout the landing several people had to be taken to hospital. Even on this occasion, however, the police forces and Frontex went ahead enthusiastically with their manhunt for the “alleged boat driver”, interrogating some migrants for a long period of time – people who had only just set foot on dry land – and separating out the witnesses from the “guilty suspects” even while still at the quay. The next day the local papers reported the news that 4 people had been arrested.

Migrants arriving at Lampedusa. Ph.: Forum Solidale Lampedusa

In the Pozzallo Hotspot there are still many minors, while in Lampedusa the situation is no less than scandalous. Over Sunday and Monday more than 520 refugees arrived in two different landings, bringing the number of people present in the Hotspot to 650. The space is limited, and just to have your own corner in which to lay down a mattress and go to sleep is a challenge. We know that there are many women and children in the centre, as well as people who have claimed they are Syrians, and young Tunisians who have been “housed” here for more than 2 months. The official limits have been passed by, the overcrowding is ignored, and the Hotspot is used to “detain” people who can then be made available to the police. But no one seems to notice.

These arrivals have then been followed by landings at Messina and Trapani, where 315 people have been disembarked today, and also in Sardinia, with the Siem Pilot on route towards Cagliari with 903 migrants and board, and probably one cadaver. A new victim of a massacre which keeps on going, and which we prefer simply to forget about.

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus
Translation by Richard Braude