The Mediterranean Sea is the deadliest border in the world.1 Sea-Watch was founded at the end of 2014 as an initiative of four families from Brandenburg, Germany, who no longer wanted to stand by and watch the mass dying at Europe’s southern border. Since then, nearly 500 volunteers from all over the world have joined Sea-Watch. The organization has developed into a professional, international maritime rescue and human rights organization.
However, Sea-Watch‘s goal remains to make itself redundant: we do not only stand in the defence of humanitarian emergency aid, but also work on the political demand for a #SafePassage – safe and legal routes to Europe. Without these, there can be no solution to the ongoing, brutal state of emergency in the Mediterranean Sea.
Sea-Watch e.V. is a registered German non-profit association, which is subject to all state requirements and their review. Our crews work on a voluntary basis. Due to the size of the ship, the positions of captain and engineers can no longer be filled by volunteers. We need reliable nautical personnel who know the engines and the ship very well and can provide a certain continuity. The other crew members and most of the people who work for Sea-Watch on land and in the air do so completely unpaid. Our missions are 100% funded by donations from individuals and small businesses. The Protestant Church in Germany supports our air reconnaissance project, Operation #Moonbird.
We do not disclose our donors, as this is prohibited by the Data Protection Act. However, a complete and transparent overview of our funding and operations can be found in our annual report, which is publicly available.
We do not get money from rescued people or any other party active in the Mediterranean Sea, and we would never accept doing so. We do not get any financial gain in exchange for rescuing people, and we would never accept doing so. We are a humanitarian organisation whose mandate is not-for-profit, which means that the humanitarian imperative is our sole motivation, and in turn is the focus of our own spending. As explained above, our income is from donations made by individuals, businesses and organisations who support civil rescue. We have never received institutional funding from governments.
On a continuous basis, we review incoming and prospective donations on principles of ethical fundraising. This enables us to reject monetary support from any source that is not aligned with our civil and humanitarian status and/or from whom it would be unethical to receive support.
In contrast, the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which receives financial and material support from and is trained by the European Union, benefits from institutional funding in exchange for intercepting people who are in distress at sea and illegally pushing them back to Libya. Libyan civil war militias, European border security agencies and illegitimate or authoritarian governments are collecting many billions of euros worth of training and resources to physically keep those fleeing a wide range of injustices and seeking protection from reaching Europe.2
The Sea-Watch 3 and our aerial assets patrol the Central Mediterranean search and rescue (SAR) zone, north of the 24-nautical mile zone off of Libya. The sea crossing from Libya to Italy is one of the main routes for refugees and migrants travelling from North Africa to Europe. Despite the long distance from Libya to Italy, small and unseaworthy boats, such as rubber dinghies, are mostly used. All those who are forced to make this crossing are in a life-threatening emergency.
The territorial waters, where a state has full sovereignty, extend 12 nautical miles off the shoreline of a state. Beyond them lies the so-called contiguous zone up to 24 nautical miles, in which the state has certain rights, e.g. criminal prosecution.
Our rescue operations take place outside Libyan waters, and as a rule outside this contiguous zone. In principle the “right of peaceful passage” also exists in coastal waters (Art. 17 UNCLOS), as well as the duty to render assistance (Art. 98 UNCLOS) to any person found at sea in danger of being lost. Nevertheless, we avoid the Libyan 24-Mile-Zone, as attacks on NGO ships have already occurred several times, even in international waters.
We provide first aid to people in distress at sea and save them from drowning in the Mediterranean, initially by handing out life jackets. The necessary measures are coordinated with the official authorities (MRCC) in Rome. In addition, Sea-Watch 2 has water and food on board, so that help can be provided to dehydrated people. The facilities include a first-aid room where we can provide[A3] medical emergency treatment. The capacity of the Sea-Watch 2 is too small to bring all shipwrecked people to a safe harbour. Therefore, we transfer the rescued to larger ships. It is the duty of the European Union to establish safe passages.
No. It has long been proven that there is no direct causal link between the presence of rescue NGOs (or any rescue capacity for that matter) and boat launches from Libya.3 Even when there are no rescue vessels present, people still die at sea in great numbers. Conversely, even when rescue vessels are operating in the Central Mediterranean, numbers of arrivals can decline.
The number of arrivals to Europe has declined drastically while we were operational in the period between December 2017 and May 2018, by about 75% compared to the previous year. However, since the blockade of several rescue NGOs operating in the Central Mediterranean, combined with the withdrawal of naval assets from EUNAVFORMED Operation Sophia, the death rate of people crossing the Central Mediterranean has risen significantly. In 2018, on average 6 people died each day.4 September 2018 was the deadliest month on record; it was also a month in which NGO rescue ships were prevented from their work by various European authorities without legal justification.
This is all a clear indication that more rescue ships does not mean more boat launchings.5 However, fewer rescue ships does mean more deaths.
The unscrupulous behaviour of traffickers is completely independent of our presence at sea. People in maritime distress are often not found, on time or at all. Reducing search and rescue capacity only makes their chances of being found alive smaller than they already are. Therefore, a withdrawal of search and rescue capacity does not act as a deterrent for smugglers launching boats (this point was already clear in 2015 when over 1200 people drowned in one week in an unprecedented mass drowning incident, in the wake of which Operation Sophia was launched).
Migration, fleeing and displacement are not new phenomena. In the current day and age, with over 65 million people displaced worldwide, people are fleeing from wars and persecution, poverty and lack of human rights. People were fleeing long before we founded Sea-Watch. In fact, we founded Sea-Watch in the first place precisely because there were boats in distress, but no rescue ships.
When European governments are guilty of letting people drown at sea, it is only to be expected that they will spin a narrative that diverts from their complicity in violations of international laws and their complacency in taking up their responsibilities in the Mediterranean Sea. NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea are the only witnesses to these violations by European member states and the loudest voice in holding them to account. It is therefore all the more clear why European governments must put an end to their deadly rhetoric, as well as their deadly border policies.
The fact that boats are unseaworthy is not something the passengers of these boats can control. They are not the ones who source these boats; their smugglers are. People will often have little to no control over their journeys or the conditions in which they travel or are kept. At the mercy of the facilitators of their journeys, people will find themselves with little choice but to get onto an overcrowded and unseaworthy dinghy.
In the run-up to the crossing, many people who are about to make the crossing may have little knowledge of the dangers and very low chances of reaching Europe with a rubber dinghy. We have been told, for example, that the lights on the oil rigs a few dozen nautical miles off the coast of Libya have often deceptively been displayed by smugglers as lights from mainland Europe.
At the same time, we meet refugees who have themselves capsized on boats in distress or have seen others drown before. People who fully understand the dangers, yet have no other choice than to risk their lives to escape from Libya.
By default, any overcrowded inflatable or wooden boat must be treated as a boat in distress. Hardly any of the boats are seaworthy at all, especially with hundreds of people but little to no petrol, no food and far too little water on board. In most cases, people are not equipped with life jackets, communication or navigation devices. Even a smartphone, if passengers have any, is completely useless at sea as people are unable to dial into a radio cell.
The people who are helplessly exposed to the elements dehydrated and weakened, many suffer from chemical burns from hours of sitting in a mixture of salt water, fuel and faeces. Additionally, the passengers of rubber boats are continuously at risk of the boat’s tubes bursting. Wooden boats tend to capsize in situations of unrest and many people have even died due to lack of oxygen, if placed on a lower deck of a wooden boat.
On rubber dinghies, those in the middle (usually women and children) are the first to suffer the consequences of a deflation. Though they are put in the middle for shelter from the elements and to prevent falling overboard, when a rubber dinghy collapses, those in the middle may get trampled, suffocate, suffer chemical burns, or drown.
It has been common practice for years, for good reason, to treat any such boat with refugees departing from North Africa as an emergency at sea, as soon as they have left the shore. This assessment is shared by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Italian Coast Guard and all sea rescue organisations, as well as the Italian court in Ragusa in the case of the confiscation of the Open Arms on 11 May 2018.
There are different ways to learn about a distress at sea. Our crews, who are constantly on the lookout for boats in distress while we patrol the Search and Rescue (SAR) area, might spot a boat by themselves. In addition, we are in close contact with the relevant SAR authorities such as the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) in Rome. If we then receive information about a boat in distress and they want us to intervene, they inform us via satellite phone and email. We also receive information from aircraft patrolling the area, especially from our two reconnaissance planes Moonbird and Colibri, but also from military assets. Sometimes commercial merchant ships also report an emergency at sea. In 60% of our rescue operations in 2017 we received the notifications directly from the IMRCC, 40% of the information about SAR cases came from other actors or we discovered them ourselves.
When we discover a boat in distress, we collect as much information as possible and inform the competent authorities. Unitil 2017 the authorities, especially the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome, used to react immediately and either instruct us to initiate rescue measures or inform us who is taking responsibility (for example if another ship is closer to the scene or if we are already involved in another rescue). However, in recent years we have seen a continuous decline in the willingness of European rescue authorities to fulfill their duty. Instead they have shifted the responsibility to the inoperative and often not even reachable, so-called Libyan “authorities”.
If we are instructed to carry out a rescue, the Sea-Watch 3 will quickly approach the position of the emergency and launch its speedboats (RHIBs) with crew (including a cultural mediator and a (para-)medic) on board, as well as carrying enough life jackets for all persons on the boat in distress. At the first approach of the boat in distress, we talk to the people to calm them down and prevent them from jumping into the water in panic, and hand out the life jackets. As soon as all people are equipped with life jackets, we start to evacuate the people from the boat one by one. Small children and injured or unconscious people go first and are quickly taken to the ship, where the medical team takes care of them.
Finally, we mark the boat with the case number and date, as well as the position of the rescue, so that it is clear to any seafarers who find the vessel that its remnants indicate not another tragedy but a successful rescue operation. Finally, we destroy the boat so that it does not become a danger to other ships navigating in the area, a false target for rescuers, or that it gets towed back to Libya and re-used.
On board, our doctors identify injured, sick, pregnant and other vulnerable people and begin treatment in our medical room. People often suffer chemical burns from the mixture of fuel and salt water in which they have to sit for hours or even days. Many are dehydrated and malnourished. If we have particularly serious medical emergencies on board that we cannot deal with at sea, the authorities organise an evacuation. Everyone on board receives a hygiene kit and a water bottle that can be refilled from the ship’s water supply. Depending on the weather, we also distribute rescue blankets or warm blankets. We send a report detailing the breakdown of people on board in gender, health status and those with specific needs or vulnerabilities, for example unaccompanied minors, to the relevant authorities so that they can best prepare for our arrival, if they instructed us to take the rescued people to a port of safety ourselves.
According to international maritime law, people who have been rescued from distress at sea must be taken to the nearest place of safety. This place of safety must fulfil various conditions, such as access to basic supplies and protection against persecution of persons rescued from distress at sea.6 Our places of safety have so far always been Malta and Italy, as they are the closest safe countries for rescued people from the Central Mediterranean.
In the past, the MRCC in Rome coordinated all rescue operations and assigned safe harbours in southern Italy to us and all other ships rescuing at sea. Since the change of government in Italy in 2018, the rescue ships were initially delayed and no ports at all were assigned to them anymore. Recently, the lack of urgency in the state obligation to provide rescued people at sea with a safe port has resulted in exceptionally long standoffs with (NGO) rescue ships carrying survivors on board being kept at sea for unreasonable amounts of time while EU member states negotiate ad hoc distribution deals prior to assigning a harbour for disembarkation, for example in the cases of the Aquarius (8 days) and Lifeline (6 days) in June 2018, the Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti (6 days) in August 2018, and the Sea-Watch 3 (19 days in December 2018/January 2019 and 10 days in January and February 2019).
In exceptional cases, ships may call at ports in Spain. Due to the distance involved, a voyage lasting several days would involve a great deal of effort for the rescued people and the crew and would entail dangerous conditions: the well-being of people in need would no longer be a priority and a humanitarian crisis would be accepted as a risk. More days outside the SAR zone also means more otherwise potentially preventable deaths.
People rescued from distress at sea have to be brought to a “place of safety” (POS). This is not only demanded by common sense, but also by the two most relevant maritime rescue conventions, SOLAS and the 1979 Search & Rescue Convention.7 The place of safety is defined further by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as a location where “the survivors’ safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met”8 This IMO-definition shows very clearly: It is not just about dropping off rescuees on the closest piece of dry land (an uninhabited island, an oil platform, Libya…), but about actually taking them to a safe haven.
The place of safety is not chosen by the captain of the rescue ship but has to be assigned by the competent rescue coordination center responsible for the SAR9 zone in which the rescue took place. Tunisia does not provide such a rescue coordination center.10 Moreover, the country has recently repeatedly and over long periods of time refused to accept rescued persons, e.g. from cargo ships.
In addition to these conventions, international human rights law has to be taken into account in the search for a place of safety when it comes to people fleeing war and persecution: The non-refoulement principle of the Geneva Refugee Convention forbids the returning of a refugee to a country “where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion11 The member states of the ECHR are bound by this prohibition of refoulement irrespective of where state sovereignty is exercised. State Parties must therefore ensure the exercise of the Conventions’ rights for all persons within their jurisdiction or effective control, for example on board ships flying their flags abroad, on the high seas. Finally, as UNHCR points out, this fundamental principle of international law applies to refugees “irrespective of their formal recognition, thus obviously including asylum-seekers whose status has not yet been determined.12
Under these premises, Tunisia disqualifies for several reasons as a place of safety for people rescued in the central Mediterranean:
First of all and most importantly, there is no national asylum procedure in Tunisia. This means that there is no national refugee status determination procedure and no legal reference to a permit to stay. On the contrary, Tunisian post-revolutionary governments have repeatedly tried to sabotage attempts to install asylum structures in the country.13 Since asylum is a human right, the denial to claim it constitutes a fundamental rights violation.
Among the rescued people might also be certain groups who face a specific risk of persecution: Tunisians fleeing from the country itself might for example be punished by a five year sentence only for leaving the country without permission. A return of these people would also blatantly violate the mentioned non-refoulement principle. Even though most Europeans regard Tunisia as a safe holiday destination, for its inhabitants it is still a country of political instability and repression where mistreatment and torture by state authorities are repeatedly reported.14 Tunisia still penalizes gay sex and must therefore be considered unsafe for LGBTI* people both from the country and from migrant communities.15
As a non-governmental, humanitarian rescue organization we are not an authority to determine or verify identity, origin, sexual orientation, or refugee status of the people we meet at sea. We also cannot and do not want to judge on the validity of these people’s asylum claims under EU law. However, what we’re supposed to do is uphold the values of human rights and dignity. We will therefore never return people back to the country they might be fleeing from, where they might be punished, persecuted and tortured. Not only do we fully share the values and ideas of the mentioned international laws and human rights conventions; as a Dutch-flagged vessel, and with the Netherlands being a contracting state, the Sea-Watch 3 and her crew are also bound by them at any time.
7 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS regulation V/33, para 1.1) / 1979 SAR Convention (Annex, Chapter 1, Para 1.3.2, 3.1.9)
8 IMO Resolution MSC.167(78), 6.12
9 SAR: Search And Rescue
10 IMO GISIS Global SAR Plan, Rescue Co-ordination Centres (as of 2019/06/17; GISIS account required)
11 1951 Refugee Convention, Article 33. The Non-Refoulement-Principle is additionally anchored in the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT, Article 3) and in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFR, Article 19). Moreover, it follows indirectly from Article 7 of the International Civil Covenant (ICCPR) and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
12 UNHCR note, as cited in ECHR case “Hirsi Jamaa and others vs. Italy”
13 More detailed information: Tunisia’s Role in the EU External Migration Policy. Crimmigration Law, Illegal Practices and Their Impact on Human Rights
14 Further information in Amnesty International’s country report Tunisia 2017/2018
15 ”The anti-gay French colonial law (Article 230), adopted and maintained by the Ben Ali regime, is still in effect, despite the Tunisian revolution, penalizing same-sex acts with up to three years imprisonment.”
The law of the sea and existing IMO regulations on the treatment of people rescued at sea dictate that in a addition to a ship master’s obligation to render assistance to people in distress at sea, IMO Member Governments have a corresponding obligation “to coordinate and cooperate in relieving the master of the responsibility to provide follow up care of survivors and to deliver the persons retrieved at sea to a place of safety”. It also states that governments and rescue coordination centres have the responsibility to ensure that a ship rendering assistance “should not be subject to undue delay, financial burden or other related difficulties after assisting persons at sea; therefore coastal States should relieve the ship as soon as practicable.”16
It is clear that both Sea-Watch and all other parties it collaborates with in search and rescue activities are bound by these international laws and regulations to bring survivors to a place of safety. A rescue is not over until people are in such a safe place.
Therefore, at Sea-Watch we do not really care which harbour it is, as long as it is safe. At the same time, we cannot afford to cross the Atlantic to Hamburg every time we have rescued people on board, as this unduly delays us. Many more people could drown in that time. In addition, there is no conceivable scenario in which the responsible maritime coordination authority would provide Hamburg as the nearest place of safety when it is their legal obligation to provide a place of safety that is close by and does not put an unreasonable or unnecessary delay or (financial) burden on our ship after a rescue. It will always be more practicable to relieve our ship to a safe harbour in Europe’s southern coastal states than in Germany.
So, instead we demand a fair system of redistribution of asylum seekers within Europe, because we recognise that Italy and Greece have been left by the rest of Europe to bear the brunt of accommodating and processing new arrivals to Europe for far too long. Such distribution matters must, however, be discussed on land and not at sea. Agreeing on such a distribution is a task for the European states. The Dublin Regulations, which state that an asylum application may only be lodged in the European nation of arrival, overburdens the administrative capacities of the Mediterranean countries. Its abolition would be a good first step towards a fair, cooperative and sustainable European solution.
Under no circumstances do we bring rescued people back to the place they are fleeing from, where their lives and freedom are in danger and where they end up in so-called detention centers under the worst possible conditions – often until enough money has been extorted from them – so that they are put back on a rubber dinghy and start their life-threatening journey across the Mediterranean. Apart from the strong ethical argument against returning people to Libya, there is also a clear legal one; both international maritime law and international humanitarian law stipulate that such returns are illegal.
International maritime law stipulates that people rescued from distress at sea are only brought ashore at a “place of safety”. This place is defined as “a place where the survivors’ safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met.”17
Libya is known as a “failed state”, particularly since the start of the civil war. The German Federal Foreign Office writes (as of March 2019) of Libya: “The population and foreign refugees and migrants suffer criminality, kidnappings, irregular detention, arbitrary executions, torture and oppression of freedom of speech by the various actors due to the prevailing lack of rights.”18
In addition, the Geneva Refugee Convention clearly states that “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”19
The prohibition of refoulement is explicitly guaranteed in Article 33 of the Geneva Refugee Convention, in Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture (CAT) and in Article 19 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (ECHR)20. Moreover, it follows indirectly from Article 7 of the International Civil Covenant (IPBPR) and Article 3 of the ECHR. The member states of the ECHR are bound by this prohibition of refoulement irrespective of where state sovereignty is exercised. State Parties must therefore ensure the exercise of the Convention’s rights for all persons within their jurisdiction or effective control, even if sovereignty is not exercised within their territory but, for example, on board ships abroad or on the high seas.
Whoever brings people back to Libya is breaking international law. As early as 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the so-called “Hirsi-Case”21 that European ships must not bring refugees back to Libya.
Worldwide 68.5 million people are displaced. 40 million of them are internally displaced and seek refuge within their home country. 25.4 million are registered as refugees, including 5.4 million Palestinians under UNRWA mandate. 3.1 million people are asylum seekers.
85% of all displaced people find protection in developing countries. The largest refugee shelters are Turkey (3.5 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Pakistan (1.4 million) and Lebanon (1 million).22
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, put this into perspective in a statement* on Europe and asylum when he said: “Europe today is no longer in the crux of a migration or refugee crisis. Mediterranean arrivals numbers are at pre-2014 levels and are dropping towards their long-term historic averages. More than 9 in 10 of the world’s forcibly displaced people are outside Europe – either in their own countries or in immediately neighbouring ones: countries mostly of the Global South.”23
The EU has over 510 million inhabitants. According to official UNHCR figures, a total of 139,300 people have arrived through the Mediterranean in 2018.24 This equals 0.027 % of the current EU population, which is a far cry from the high refugee population density in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, who have taken the largest proportion of refugees relative to their population.
We do not differentiate between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’, as anyone has the right to be rescued from distress at sea. In fact, this is one of the first stipulations of the IMO’s guide on the treatment of people found in distress at sea, that “survivors of distress incidents are provided assistance regardless of nationality or status or the circumstances in which they are found”. It is also in line with the fundamental humanitarian principle of impartiality, which means providing care on the basis of need, without discrimination.
The situation in Libya is desperate. People report that during the many stages of their flight they are sold from one trafficker to another, kidnapped, raped, abused and imprisoned, sold as slaves and exploited.The moment they get on the water, they flee primarily from the civil war, the torture prisons and slave markets in Libya, even if initially they fled other conditions in their countries of origin.
Refugee status is something that is recognised in the course of an asylum procedure that is subject to clearly defined criteria. Such a procedure takes place after the rescue, on land. However, in practise, the distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is hard to make, given that the same individual may need both international protection as well as to earn a livelihood. Most cross-Mediterranean migrants indeed have compounded or mixed reasons for crossing.25
We stress the legitimacy of a range of reasons to flee or migrate, such as extreme poverty, hunger, lack of access to medical care, war and violent conflicts, political persecution and lack of prospects. So-called ‘economic migrants’ often flee a post-colonial exploitation policy, created by Western states. The desire to take responsibility for shaping one’s own life and to create prospects or opportunities for oneself is legitimate.
No, we are merely responding to the consequences of closed borders and the lack of safe and legal escape routes. The great hardship in their countries of origin forces people into the hands of smuggling gangs. These benefit from the hopeless situation of the people, independent of rescue operations on the high seas. Or, as Italian Journalist Gabriele Del Grande puts it, citing market laws: “the first is that demand generates supply. The second is that prohibition supports the mafias. In other words, as long as someone is willing to pay to travel from Africa to Europe, someone will offer them the opportunity to do so. And if the airlines don’t do it, smuggling will.”
Only legal escape routes or long-term improvements in the countries of origin can stop human trafficking. Because these long-term improvements cannot be foreseen, we fight for the immediate establishment of legal escape routes in order to put a lasting end to the suffering of people in distress at sea, as well as to human trafficking and smuggling.
We have no and never had contact with the smuggling networks in Libya or elsewhere. We do not and never would work with them. Their actions directly place people in the very conditions we exist to rescue them from.
Trafficking and smuggling of human beings is a symptom of closed borders. Giving refugees the opportunity to flee in safe and legal ways and to apply for asylum is the most effective way of combating human trafficking.
Yet, the accusation that we are smugglers persists, for the simple reason that it conveniently fits within the wider policy of cracking down on rescue NGOs and the narrative of criminalisation of humanitarian actors, as it is those actors who are the last but immovable obstacle between Europe and its complete withdrawal of responsibility for search and rescue in the Mediterranean. Investigations against rescue NGOs for their alleged involvement with smugglers have already been carried out; none of the allegations in this regard against any sea rescue NGO has proven valid.
It is well known, however, that the militias of the EU-funded so-called Libyan Coast Guard are closely linked to the smuggling network. This was also reiterated by the United Nations Security Council on 7 June 2018, when it imposed sanctions on leading members of the so-called Libyan coastguard.
In the immediate term, European ports must be reopened to sea rescue vessels and the criminalisation of NGOs must stop. The full state-led rescue capacity of the European Union must also return to the SAR zone in the Central Mediterranean to ensure people do not needlessly drown at sea while they seek safety; something Europe and its institutions have full capacity to realise. The European coastal states, including Italy, must resume their maritime rescue coordination and legal obligations towards people found in distress at sea.
European coastal states’ port closures must not be used as leverage for a European solution.
In addition, the European Union must stop transferring maritime rescue coordination responsibility, and by extension European border control policy, to the so-called Libyan coast guard. It must end its material support, training and legitimization of this entity, which conducts Europe’s illegal return of people to Libya by proxy.
More generally, election campaigns and political negotiations must not be carried out at the expense of those seeking protection, which leads to hundreds of people drowning in the sea. Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Malta and Greece must not be left alone to offer people protection. The Dublin III regulation actually prevents a fair distribution of asylum seekers and transfers responsibility to the south of Europe, as people cannot apply for asylum in other European countries, and therefore it must be dissolved.
We call for a pan-European solution based on solidarity, self-determination and safe and legal escape routes. This is the only way to end the death at Europe’s external borders.
Rescue at sea is not a solution to all the world’s problems. It is not even a solution for people drowning, since our limited search and rescue capacity can never guarantee the rescue of all those crossing the whole Central Mediterranean. We are providing emergency aid and try the best we can to end the dying. What is needed are safe and legal ways for people to seek protection in Europe. At the same time, safe escape routes never replace the need to address the ’causes of flight’, which means creating living conditions in the world under which everyone can safely live anywhere.
That would be far better than crossing the sea on a flimsy dinghy, and that is why it is one of our core demands: creating safe and legal escape routes. Legal routes to Europe are also the most effective means against human trafficking. No-one will fall into the hands of criminals if there is a safer and cheaper option. Unfortunately, there are no such legal channels: for example, applications for asylum or recognition of refugee status in Germany can only be filed in Germany, not at embassies or consulates overseas. No visas for humanitarian migration are issued either.
Legal routes often come with high financial burdens and time requirements, which people in acute emergency situations often cannot afford. Apart from the bureaucratic effort required to obtain a visa, when a country sinks into war and unrest, the authorities often can no longer function reliably. In cases of state persecution, it is also unreasonable to expect someone to turn to their very persecutor to ask for an opportunity to leave the country.
Frontex is the European Border Management Agency responsible for coordinating operations at the EU’s external borders. Frontex’s primary objective is to combat so-called ‘illegal immigration’ across the EU’s external borders. Although support for SAR missions is also a declared objective, Frontex is usually not actively engaged in search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean.
The EU Council of Ministers launched the EUNAVFOR MED (European Union Naval Forces) military operation in October 2015. The main mission of the Operation is to combat criminal smuggling networks off the Libyan coast. In June 2016, the mandate was renewed and training of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and support for the UN arms embargo in international waters off the Libyan coast were added. The EUNAVFOR MED mission is therefore not a sea rescue operation like the previous Mare Nostrum mission.
Sophia has been largely inactive since early summer 2018, after the Italian minister of interior, Matteo Salvini, announced that he would close the country’s ports not only for civilian rescuers but also for EU naval assets with rescued people aboard.
More Info: UK House of Lords – Sophia, a failed mission
The Sea-Watch3 is registered in the Netherlands as ‘pleasure craft’ or ‘pleasure yacht’, an alternative name which can be used interchangeably. In the Netherlands, the ship’s flag state, there are two ways to register a ship: as a commercial ship (e.g. ferry, freighter, tanker, passenger ship) or as a pleasure craft. A ship can simply either be one or the other, and because Sea-Watch3 is not a commercial ship, it is registered as a pleasure craft.
This registration only says something about the use of the ship in so far as it has to be non-commercial. Sea-Watch is a non-profit organization and operates the Sea-Watch 3 in a non-commercial way. Many other NGOs who operate ships, such as Greenpeace or Sea-Shepherd, have also registered their ships as pleasure crafts in the Netherlands with the support of the local authorities. The main reason is that there is no size restriction for the non-commercial registration. In theory, there are other special registrations, such as the ones German SAR ships of the DGzRS enjoy, but these can only be obtained by state conferral.
In contrast to most recreational vessels, the Sea-Watch3 is registered in the Royal Dutch Shipping Register as a Dutch seagoing vessel, and therefore is fully entitled to fly the Dutch flag. In Sea-Watch 3’s corresponding ship cadastre, the ship type is ‘rescue ship’.
We depend on financial donations to be able to continue to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea in 2019. In addition to material help, organisational help is also welcome, for example for campaigns in Germany. A big help is also the spreading of the idea of Sea-Watch and raising awareness in your circle of friends and acquaintances. Information material for lectures, concerts, creative events can be requested here.