MIGRATION: ‘The way our countries are treating refugees –this isn't the Europe we want’

SeaWatchCIVICUS speaks to Giorgia Linardi, spokesperson for Sea-Watch in Italy, and Julian Pahlke, chairperson of Jugend Rettet (‘Youth Rescues’) and former crew member of the Iuventa ship. Sea-Watch and Jugend Rettet both conduct civil search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Central Mediterranean, a route by which migrants and refugees seek to enter Europe. In the face of an ongoing humanitarian crisis, they provide emergency relief, push for rescue operations by European institutions and stand up for legal escape routes and the removal of the root causes of migration and flight.

Photo: Sea-Watch.org

When did you decide to organise to help migrants and refugees, and why?

Julian Pahlke (JP): Jugend Rettet was founded in early 2016 by a couple of young people in Berlin. As young Europeans, we couldn’t let Europe become a mass grave. Ours is such a rich continent. Why would we leave less fortunate people to drown at sea? We might be geographically disconnected from the Mediterranean, but as Europeans we cannot be disconnected from the issue, because if you look at the way our countries are treating migrants and refugees, this is not the Europe we want.

When the idea of organising first came up, the media was reporting drownings in the Mediterranean on a daily basis. In the hopes of deterring migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, in late 2014 the European Union (EU) and its member states pulled back from sea rescue. In April 2015 alone, 1,200 people died at sea. We mobilised in response to our governments’ lack of action, which was - and is - causing thousands of people to die. As we organised and raised funds, in early 2016 we managed to buy and convert a ship, the Iuventa, which started patrolling the Central Mediterranean in July 2016.

Giorgia Linardi (GL): Sea-Watch is also a SAR civil society organisation (CSO), and it is also pretty young. We started in the summer of 2015 with just a few people and are now supported by around 150 active volunteers. We didn’t want to watch from the sidelines while thousands of people were dying in the Mediterranean. As civil society, we wanted to be there because we were not convinced by the information we were receiving about what was happening, and we knew there was a void in terms of SAR capacity, particularly since the termination of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation. We wanted to be present to monitor the situation, demand accountability and put pressure on authorities to take up the responsibility of providing adequate SAR capacity. And we increasingly equipped ourselves to be able to perform rescues, because we soon realised that it was not enough to just be in the Mediterranean, locate people in distress and provide emergency assistance while waiting for the authorities to come, because they could take too long to arrive, or not come at all. Also the Italian Coast Guard insisted that CSOs operating with small assets should equip themselves with bigger ones to be able to carry out the full operation, including rescue and disembarkation, so we eventually got a ship that would allow us to keep people on board for some time until they could disembark somewhere safe.

The name of our organisation, Sea-Watch, tries to convey the idea of an independent civil society eye able to see what happens without any filters and correct the narrative that is disseminated about what is going on, while also taking action to rescue people and hence uphold the values of solidarity and human rights at sea, which are being increasingly neglected.

How do you help migrants and refugees, and what challenges you encounter when doing so?

JP: We try to fill a gap by doing what our governments are failing to do: rescuing people who would otherwise die. We demand a government programme focusing on sea rescue and the decriminalisation of asylum seekers and refugees, while conducting SAR operations ourselves. Our ship sails - or I should say sailed, as it was confiscated by the Italian authorities more than a year ago - near Libyan territorial waters and searches for boats in maritime distress. We rescue the people on the boats, offer them food and water, provide first aid and try to take them to safety. In 2016 and 2017 we carried out 15 rescue missions and saved more than 14,000 people.

GL: We do very similar work. With our ship, the Sea-Watch 2, we assisted the rescue of 20,000 people in 2016 alone. We find people in distress, hand out life jackets and provide first aid, water and food. We are also equipped with life rafts and are able to provide aid to 300 to 500 people at a time. Our modus operandi consists in coordinating with the competent Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), which used to be the Italian Coast Guard until the establishment of a Libyan Search-and-Rescue - which has left a gap in rescue coordination - and possibly transferring the rescued people onto other, bigger vessels of other CSOs, the Italian Coast Guard or the Navy, with the authorisation of the competent authority, to maximise our presence in the Search-and-Rescue zone. Only if the MRCC requests so explicitly do we take the voyage to a safe harbour. Each transfer to shore means at least four days away from the area where most distress situations occur.

You are doing work that governments should be doing in the first place. What has your relationship with government authorities been like?

JP: It has changed over time. In 2016 and for part of 2017 the MRCC directed rescue cases to civil society, and cooperation with the authorities, particularly in Italy, was pretty good. But sometime in 2017 the situation changed, and the MRCC started not redirecting cases to us but rather sending them to the Libyan coastguard, known for their human rights violations. And in August 2017 our ship was searched and confiscated, and we still haven’t got it back. It happened on 1 August 2017, when the MRCC ordered our ship to Lampedusa, and as it arrived, it was seized by the Italian authorities. The previous day we had refused to sign a so-called Code of Conduct with the Italian government, which would have forced us to break international maritime law.

There has been a massive change. At this point SAR is mainly in the hands of civil society, but civil society is under attack. Now it is not only people on the move who are targeted, but also human rights defenders and CSOs that are slandered, harassed and even subjected to prosecution. Ten of our crew members are currently under judicial investigation and our organisation has been accused of colluding with people smugglers, aiding illegal migration and carrying weapons on board. Even if the case goes nowhere, they are still getting what they want: in the meantime, we are unable to do our rescue work and other rescue CSOs have left the Mediterranean and suspended their missions.

GL: Our relationship with the Italian government has also changed for the worse. Just to be clear: we never, ever engaged in a SAR operation without the coordination of the competent authority, MRCC-Rome. They have coordinated all SAR operations in the Mediterranean for a long time, and at some point they even came to consider the civil society ships as a sort of civic fleet. But the situation recently changed, and it did so quite rapidly. The change possibly started around February 2017, as the Malta Declaration was signed, empowering the Libyan coastguard to contain migration in Libya.

This came alongside a heavy campaign to delegitimise and criminalise organisations and activists working with migrants and refugees. Besides ‘colluding with smugglers’, we are also accused of ‘unintentionally helping criminals’ by encouraging smugglers to ship people in even worse conditions, of being a ‘pull-factor’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the crossing.

Our relationship with the authorities became increasingly tense as they tried to delegate responsibility for rescue operations to the Libyan coastguard. We know that Libya is not able to control the SAR area under its jurisdiction. First, they don’t have the capacity. Second, according to the legal definition, a rescue cannot be considered finalised if people are returned to a place where their lives are in danger. Our missions follow international maritime law and humanitarian principles, so we cannot allow SAR missions to end with people being forcibly returned to Libya, where there is a civil war. When it apprehends people trying to cross to Europe, the Libyan coastguard sends them to detention camps where they are kept in terrible conditions and their human rights are systematically violated.

If our governments keep supporting and funding a system that sends migrants to Libya, it puts us in a position where we cannot collaborate with the authorities as we used to. What we do instead is follow strictly the international legal framework regulating SAR operations at sea from the point of view of maritime law, refugees law and human rights and humanitarian principles. Unfortunately, state practice is legitimising an unlawful system, which puts us in a conflicting relationship with the authorities, even though it is absolutely not what we want. Now, every time we engage in a rescue operation, we lack a competent authority of reference that will take responsibility for the case and indicate a safe port of disembarkation as soon as possible, as provided by law.

Are recent political changes in Europe impacting on your work?

GL: The criminalisation we are facing at every level – media, political and judicial - is connected with the direction politics are taking. As the envoy for Sea-Watch in Italy, I can provide a concrete example of this. In Italy, the way in which migration has been depicted towards public opinion has greatly influenced the outcomes of the elections. The country is now governed by someone who promised to put ‘Italians first’ and talks negatively about migrants all the time. The situation in the Mediterranean was manipulated to gain the trust of people through fear. Playing on people’s insecurities, politicians talk about an invasion that is not actually happening – the problem they are talking about, we don’t have it now, but we will in 20 or 30 years if there will be all these people in our country that we never made any effort to integrate. And when that happens, it will be our responsibility.

But it is particularly difficult for us to make people see any of this because we have been intensely depicted as criminals and as people not trusted. So we need to work to shift public perceptions of CSOs. But as we are busy reacting and defending ourselves, we have less and less time and resources to do our substantive work.

A few weeks ago, along with the ships of two other CSOs – the Spanish Open Arms and the recently formed Italian platform Mediterranea – we assisted a Spanish fishing vessel engaged in a rescue operation. The Libyan coastguard intervened and took 26 people, but 12 people were left behind and were rescued by the Spanish fishing vessel, which then didn’t know what to do with them. Their instructions were to return them to Libya, but the rescued people told them they would rather be left to drown than go back to Libya. Thus the fishermen understood that they could not return them to Libya. But as nobody would let them disembark, they had to stay out there in terrible weather for over 10 days, until eventually it was agreed that they would disembark in Malta and be transferred to Spain. Twelve people! Multiply this by the hundreds and thousands, and it gives you an idea of how difficult the situation has become, and what little space for humanitarian action is left.

JP: With the rise of right-wing populism, the context is changing rapidly all over Europe. Politicians in several countries are basically telling people to get used to the idea of people drowning on our doorstep and raising public suspicions against human rights and humanitarian aid organisations. The media have disseminated false accusations against us and created an atmosphere where it is difficult to operate.

Although in Germany the political situation is different from Italy’s in many ways, there is a lot of distrust towards organisations like ours in Germany too. The German Minister of the Interior recently said that SAR activists should be arrested so they don’t endanger any more people. We have a far-right party that gets 15 to 20 per cent of the vote – but fortunately, unlike in Italy, it is not part of the government – and has greatly contributed to the misperception of our work. Their message has been widely disseminated because even the parties at the centre have the clear objective of keeping people out, even if that means sending people back to places where their human rights are brutally violated. As a result, among the many people who still believe that human rights are universal and can’t be taken away from anybody, there has been a shift towards the Green Party and leftist parties. Therefore, politics is moving simultaneously in both directions.

How do you think greater public solidarity for migrants and refugees can be fostered?

GL: One promising way, which we are attempting, is to work with other parts of civil society that we didn’t have many links with in the past. The issue of migration is divisive and it is not easy to mobilise people around it in progressive terms, but there is a layer of civil society working to advance human rights that it is possible to appeal to. The moment we started being openly attacked for the work we do with migrants and refugees was also the moment when we connected the most with civil society on land. So while on the one hand those attacks marked the beginning of a downward trend, on the other, having some of our energies diverted from SAR operations and channelled towards creating connections turned out to be productive as well.

A common cause was built on the recognition that not only the violation of the human rights of migrants is a violation of human rights per se, but also that governments will not stop after stripping migrants and refugees, the most vulnerable people, of their rights – they will go on to reduce civil liberties for us all. This kind of discourse has helped build connections between civil society at sea and human rights-oriented civil society on land. This has been the main effort done by the new Italian platform Mediterranea, and it is interesting that just now, when it seemed that there was no hope in Italy anymore, as ports were closed, boats were confiscated and CSOs were put under investigation, this platform was born out of the convergence of progressive, rights-oriented civil society groups.

The situation is also challenging because it shifts our focus from humanitarian work to politics, and we do not want to politicise our message too much. But, in any case, progress has been made in creating connections and advancing advocacy, especially within EU institutions, and the European Parliament in particular.

JP: Indeed, it’s all about connections, advocacy and campaigning. There is a need for a counter narrative to combat what risks becoming common sense: that it is okay to send people back to a place where there is a civil war. Over the summer, as ships were being seized and SAR operations were almost paralysed, a campaign was started by Seebrücke (Sea Bridge), a small group of activists in Berlin that promotes the utopian idea of building a bridge over the Mediterranean. In response to anti-migrant protests, more than 200,000 people mobilised to demand that Germany take in more migrants. This is the kind of civil society action we need so people become aware that human rights are in danger and they should be concerned about it.

In the mid- and long-term, what needs to be done to stop this human rights catastrophe?

JP: Beyond what needs to be done immediately, which is to put together a state rescue programme, what is needed in the long term is a legal pathway so people can seek asylum in European countries without risking a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. A humanitarian visa or proper resettlement programmes that do not depend on the collaboration of the dictators who rule the countries that people are fleeing could offer possible solutions. But the problem is that for the time being our governments don’t see a reason for doing this, so while we keep campaigning for political change and advocating for the rights of migrants and refugees, in the short term we try to focus on doing our SAR work – which in turn has is being increasingly obstructed, coming almost to a halt.

How can the international community, including international organisations and international civil society, best support your work?

GL: First of all, we need help in putting more pressure on governments to uphold their international obligations and human rights standards. We need help because right now we are in resistance mode, as we are clearly unwanted in many contexts where we need to be present to do our work. And it is our duty to stay there and keep on, or otherwise in 30 years Europe will look back in horror and ask, ‘How could we let that happen?’ So we need help to build more solid bridges between work in the field and advocacy at international institutions, including the United Nations, bringing in concrete cases that we can build on to foster more accountability. International civil society can help by listening to and amplifying the human rights message.

JP: Last but not least, what not just international organisations and civil society, but any individual who cares about human rights can do at this time, is help us on board, help us on land, come when we mobilise – and donate if they can, because we are all volunteer-based organisations, doing what governments should be doing but funded exclusively through the voluntary contributions of regular people.

Get in touch with Sea-Watch and Jugend Rettet through their websites, or follow @seawatchcrew, @jugendrettet, @giorgialinardi and @J_Pahlke on Twitter