Sea-Watch 3 standoff shows how far Europe will go to keep out refugees

Sea-Watch 3, the last rescue ship operating in the central Mediterranean saved 47 people from a rubber dinghy, off the coast of Libya, on Jan. 19. (Photo by Felix Weiss for Sea-Watch).
Sea-Watch 3, the last rescue ship operating in the central Mediterranean, saves 47 people from a rubber dinghy, off the coast of Libya, on Jan. 19. (Photo by Felix Weiss for Sea-Watch.)

When the private rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 rescued 47 migrants shipwrecked by stormy seas off the Libyan coast last month, they should have been commended for saving lives. Instead, they’ve been embroiled in a standoff as the rescuers have had to fight to be allowed to bring the migrants to any shore in Europe.

Denying safe harbor to these survivors shows how far European politicians will go to keep refugees out of their countries.

In Syracuse, Sicily, local activists have gathered to show support to refugees on board the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has relentlessly declared he will not allow the ship to dock in Italy’s ports, thus contradicting  the statement by Syracuse Mayor Francesco Italia who said the refugees would be welcomed in his city.

Photos show the activists on the ground carrying banners of welcome and denouncing Salvini’s right-wing agenda, while refugees gaze, through binoculars, at the small crowd ready to welcome them. The scene imparts a sliver of humanity that has been missing from European Union politics and its obsession to keep refugees out.

Sea-Watch’s Communications Officer Oliver Kulikowski criticised the EU’s attitude towards refugees.

“The European Union does not only let people drown in the Mediterranean. It actively hinders those willing to rescue,” he told The Seattle Globalist.

“By denying civil rescue ships a port of safety, the EU is negotiating its immigration policy on the back of people in distress at sea. European leaders have to choose between human rights and fighting migration in the Mediterranean by any means necessary — you cannot have both.”

The 47 refugees on board Sea-Watch 3 are lucky to be alive. More than 100 have been presumed dead after their dinghies sank in the Mediterranean.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that 5,757 migrants reached Europe in January 2019, while the death toll has already reached 207. Since the beginning of 2014, the Missing Migrants Project has recorded 30,062 deaths in the Mediterranean, and the statistics are thought to be higher.

These numbers are of no concern to the EU, as it persists in its inhuman strategy of pushback and refusing safe haven for refugees risking their lives in the Mediterranean.

For Italy and Malta in particular, which are the first countries reached by those departing from Libya, the refusal to let migrants disembark in the ports led to perpetual sparring between Salvini and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

Muscat described his stance as necessary to “avoid setting a precedent” when other refugees arrive – a stance that ostensibly defies the EU and Salvini. Yet European leaders are, for the most part, hostile towards refugees and abdicating responsibility is a common trend.

Salvini tweeted that refugees would be allow to disembark on condition that they “move elsewhere to the Netherlands or to Germany”. His tweet garnered a fair share of right-wing support urging him not to “give in” or else Italy would be invaded.

The Italian Deputy PM also justified his order to close all ports stating that acting otherwise would ascertain more deaths.

Geographically, Malta and Italy are accessible points of entry into Europe for refugees departing from Libya, but migration in the Mediterranean is a problem that goes beyond strategic locations. What the EU fails to articulate to its people is that refugees are seeking safe haven from the historical colonial exploitation and their perpetual violent aftermaths.

For the EU, fighting migration has meant sealing deals with the Libyan coast guard and obstructing the work of private rescue ships. Boats intercepted by the Libyan coast guard are routed back to Misrata and refugees are imprisoned in detention camps where they are subjected to violence and human rights violations.

It’s an ironic deal since several European countries also contributed to making Libya a failed state after the 2011 NATO intervention left the country in the hands of rival militia groups and a breeding ground for mutating violence.

Maltese sociologist Louise Chircop, who specializes in social diversity and perceptions of citizenship, described the European governments’ double standards — striking a deal with a country violating human rights in order to avoid dealing directly with the migrant crisis.

“The EU’s deal with Libya further amplifies the disconnection between EU’s values and practices. Otherwise, how could one justify the deal with Libyan authorities to intercept migrants and return them to Libyan shores when it is common knowledge that African migrants are tortured and kept in inhumane conditions?” Chircop said.

Chircop added that inflammatory rhetoric from European politicians is also masking the humanitarian issues from the European public, and fueling their fears..

“Listening to political leaders bickering about the ‘burden’ of migration has given rise to xenophobia, racism and hate speech. If one observes social media, one can see how many are comfortable with writing racist and xenophobic comments, or commenting about the migrants’ situation when it is very clear that they are not aware of the context  which these people are running away from.”

At the same time, NGOs have had to counter the rhetoric and educate the general public on why migrants have been fleeing their homes.

“On a positive note, NGOs supporting migrants have also managed to mobilize members of society, albeit on a smaller scale,” she said.

But the latest fight over safe harbor in Sicily shows that the European politicians have gone beyond denying their responsibility for the crisis and are now actively obstructing Sea-Watch and other groups from carrying out their humanitarian duties to rescue refugees.

“Recent events have seen Sea-Watch, an NGO which conducts civil search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, being denied entry to Maltese and Italian ports, with prime ministers Muscat and Salvini claiming these migrants are not their responsibility.”

Relocation of migrants should be shared between all EU member states, Chircop said — and saving human lives should be the priority.

“Each member state should do everything in its capacity to save first and negotiate later if need be.”