Many of the European Union’s policies make it very difficult for refugees to find safety within its borders. The authorities force them to spend years living in abysmal conditions in refugee camps, illegally push them back across both land and maritime borders, and fund Libyan militias that commit grave human rights violations against them. The consequences of these policies are particularly deadly along the Central Mediterranean Route, which runs primarily from Libya to Italy and has been called the world’s most dangerous migration route.
For three weeks this summer I worked as a translator on the German rescue ship Sea Watch. The over 300 refugees we picked up south of the Italian island of Lampedusa over two days in July were “lucky.” They had managed to escape the horrors of the Libyan detention system (many had spent close to a year there) and evaded the efforts of the Libyan Coast Guard to capture them. They had begun their voyages across the Mediterranean in unseaworthy wooden or fiberglass boats or underinflated dinghies with insufficient food or water and often little to no navigational equipment, but they had survived long enough to be rescued. (For some it had been a close call. One boy told me he had clung to a gas canister in the sea for six hours after his boat capsized.)
Many attempting the crossing have not been so fortunate. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that since 2014, more than 17,000 people have died or gone missing en route. In the first three months of 2022 alone, up to 600 peopleattempting to reach Europe have gone missing, per the IOM.
(In fact, in the last month multiple shipwrecks have resulted in enormous loss of life. On Thursday, October 6, two boats carrying migrants and refugees sank in the Aegean Sea in separate incidents. At least 22 people died, and dozens are still missing. These events occurred just two weeks after another shipwreck during which, on September 22, at least 86 people died when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria.)
Despite the high number of deaths, in the last few years the EU has shifted the focus of its marine presence from search-and-rescue operations (SAR) to border protection. Simultaneously it has targeted for prosecution the NGO’s that are attempting to fill the SAR gap, such as Sea Watch.
In 2017 Italy and Libya signed an agreement that placed the responsibility to intercept and return smugglers and asylum seekers on the Libyan Coast Guard, which has deep connections to the militias that rule the country. UNHCR data shows that the likelihood of dying in the waters in front of Libya has since more than doubled. There have additionally been reports of the horrific treatment faced by asylum seekers after they have been intercepted and then returned to Libya. Many of those returned are unaccounted for.
When the refugees first came aboard Sea Watch, relief was visible on their faces. After everything they had been through, they believed that their ordeal was finally over. But they underestimated the EU’s desire to keep them out.
After the rescue the ship quickly headed towards Italy with its human cargo and was soon within sight of the Sicilian coast. The authorities however, refused to allow the passengers to disembark.
The conditions on a rescue ship are difficult to begin with, but they worsen significantly as time passes. There is insufficient food and shelter, severe overcrowding, and inadequate medical care and hygiene. This would be a challenge even for healthy people, but for the refugees aboard Sea Watch—many of whom had been traumatized multiple times—this delay could have tragic consequences.
As the days passed on the ship without a timetable for arrival, many of the refugees began to lose hope. Food and water started running out. Stress levels rose, and there were fights almost every day. For some it became too much to bear. At least one man was stopped fashioning a noose, while ten others threw themselves into the sea in a desperate attempt to reach the coast.
After a week, the government relented and—finally fulfilling the obligations required by international law—allowed the passengers on the ship to disembark.
The delay caused a great deal of suffering for a group of people who had already experienced more than their fair share. It begs the question. Why? Is it mere inefficiency on the part of the Italian government, or is it part of the EU policy to make the trip to Europe as difficult as possible, thereby discouraging others from coming?
Europe is seen—by itself and by much of the rest of the world—as a bastion of democracy and human rights. Many of the passengers on the ship told me they had dreams of coming to Europe because of this tradition. If the EU wants to be deserving of this reputation, it must reconsider its policies.