Yesterday, news reports stated that the ‘El Hiblu 1’ is believed to have rescued 108 people off the coast of Libya. Upon discovering that they were being taken back to Libya, the survivors allegedly forced the crew of the bunkering tanker to change course and sail north towards Europe instead. This morning, the Armed Forces Malta announced that they had stopped the ship 30nm off the Maltese coast after the captain confirmed several times that he had no control over the ship. They boarded the vessel and are now escorting them to Malta to hand them over to the police for investigation.
Minister Salvini said of the survivors on board that they are ‘not migrants, but pirates’. Sea-Watch adamantly challenges this destructive narrative which portrays people who are legitimately fleeing and seeking protection as anything less than the dignified human beings, with inherent human rights, they are.
“We must look to these 108 people with an eye of humanity and understand that any actions taken yesterday were in self-defence against the deadly consequences forced upon them by Europe’s inhumane border policy.”, says Johannes Bayer, Chairman of Sea-Watch.
“The horrifying conditions for people in Libya have been widely documented by a wide array of human rights monitors, including UN agencies. Migrants and refugees are known to be systematically subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, kidnapping, extortion, slavery and even murder. It is entirely legitimate for people found in distress at sea to reject being returned to Libya, the very place they know they will only continue to suffer the gravest of violations of their rights and the most degrading treatment.”
The act of returning survivors to a place where they face a well-founded fear of persecution is illegal; it is in violation of international law and whoever engages in the return of migrants and refugees to Libya cannot expect to do so with impunity. The European Union effectively facilitates this illegal ‘refoulement’ through the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, setting the tone for commercial vessels to also adopt the practice. Just as commercial shipmasters and their companies must be condemned for engaging in the return of vulnerable people to the very hell they are escaping, so must the EU be held to account for allowing illegality, inhumanity and complete disregard for human rights to become the new norm.
With Italy spearheading the ‘closure’ of European ports, people rescued at sea are increasingly likely to be kept on the vessel that rescued them for unprecedented amounts of time, until EU governments negotiate ad hoc solutions for their distribution across Europe. Though still unacceptable, it is unsurprising that merchant vessels who do engage in rescues steer clear of European ports and seek to disembark survivors to Libya instead.
“The heart of the problem here is that when the EU systematically neglects the legal obligation to render assistance to people in distress at sea and facilitate their immediate disembarkation at a port of safety, it sets a precedent which other state and non-state actors will imitate. It sends the message to anyone operating at sea that illegality is acceptable, even encouraged, and can be done without consequence,” says Johannes Bayer, Chairman of Sea-Watch.
“The events of yesterday and today are the latest damning indictment of the EU’s deadly political strategies on migration and they demonstrate the dire need for a radical shift in both policy and practice. The only element missing is not capacity, but European political will. If there would be the will for change, there would also be a way. For example in the form of a governmental sea rescue program, instead of basically cancelling the last European one, Operation Sophia.”