Left adrift in the Mediterranean

By Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

“The most important thing for these people here is that they get to a safe port and be allowed to get off the boat,” said Richard Gere, speaking from the Proactiva Open Arms NGO rescue ship today. The Hollywood star had come to Lampedusa in southern Italy to help raise awareness of the plight of 121 asylum seekers who have now been at sea for eight days. On board are more than 30 children, among them two babies, but Italian and Maltese authorities are refusing to let them disembark.

The most important thing for these people here is that they get to a safe port and be allowed to get off the boat
Richard Gere, actor

Many of those on board are reportedly suffering injuries including third degree burns and gunshot wounds inflicted during their detention in Libya, from which they recently fled. At least one man claims to have sustained injuries during last month’s attack on Tajoura detention centre in Tripoli. Yet, despite searing temperatures and mounting concerns for their well-being, Italian and Maltese authorities will not allow them to disembark.

This week it was revealed that the EU is expanding its presence in the Mediterranean, not by deploying rescue ships to save lives but by using drones to surveil migration sea crossings. On the same day, Italy passed new legislation dubbed the “Salvini decree” which could see NGO rescue boats entering Italian waters being impounded and facing fines of up to 1 million Euros.

Under international law, anyone rescued at sea must be taken to the nearest safe port where they should be treated humanely and offered an opportunity to seek asylum
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

This attempt to impede and criminalize the work of NGOs at sea is just the latest in a series of measures employed by EU countries.

Under international law, anyone rescued at sea must be taken to the nearest safe port where they should be treated humanely and offered a genuine opportunity to seek asylum. This means that people rescued in the high seas in the central Mediterranean en route from Libya should be taken to Europe; returning them to Libya would expose them to the threat of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture.

However, keen to block migration, European governments have provided the Libyan authorities support to intercept people at sea and return them to Libya. Despite this support – which includes the provision of boats and training - the Libyan authorities do not have the capacity to coordinate rescues. The result has been a situation where rescued people cannot be taken back to Libya because it is unlawful, and cannot disembark in Europe because docking is refused.

NGO rescue ships like Open Arms are refused permission to dock and are regularly prevented from conducting their life-saving activities
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

As part of the strategy to stop people taking the sea route to Europe, several countries have also withdrawn rescue patrols. NGOs like Proactiva and Sea-Watch have stepped in to fill the gap, but governments often refuse to let them dock. These NGOs have also been prevented from conducting their life-saving activities through unfounded criminal investigations and bureaucratic obstacles.

The reason European governments do not want people rescued at sea to disembark in their countries is that, under the so-called "Dublin Rules", new arrivals must be provided with a chance to seek asylum and assistance in the first country they arrive to. 

Since there is no effective system to share responsibility for asylum seekers among European states, coastal countries - Italy, Greece, Malta, Spain - have been largely left to deal with the situation. Attempts by the EU Parliament to reform the Dublin Rules have been blocked by a few countries.

Rather than attempting to fix this broken system which is failing both frontline EU states and people seeking safety, Europe’s mainstream leaders are avoiding the problem. This has created a vacuum which opportunistic far-right politicians, such as Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, have eagerly filled.

If left unchallenged, it is the likes of Salvini who will frame the conversation through fear-mongering, weaponising prejudices for electoral gain.

In that moment, the boundaries between these two men from such different places, dissolve. They are just two fathers, bobbing on a ship in the Mediterranean, sharing their pride in their sons
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

This morning, in a moving video shared on Twitter by Open Arms, Richard Gere asks a father how old his child is, and is told he is 8 months old. “My son is the same age,” says Gere, enthusiastically pulling out his phone to show a photo.

And in that moment, the boundaries between these two men from such different places, dissolve. They are just two fathers, bobbing on a ship in the Mediterranean, sharing their pride in their sons.

Yet only one these men will be able to step onto dry land and live with his child in safety. The other faces a much less certain future. 

This article was first published by Newsweek.