European politicians and media have accused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean of undermining their efforts to stem the flow of migration from Libya. Recent accusations by the EU’s border agency Frontex mark a new low in the trend of criminalising those helping migrants and refugees in Europe.
Until recently, negative media coverage and police investigations for so-called “crimes of solidarity” were directed mostly at small NGOs and volunteers. Now a main target of Frontex’s ire is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is accused with other NGOs of colluding with human smugglers and ultimately being responsible for more migrants dying at sea.
Speaking in late February, the Frontex director, Fabrice Leggeri, said the presence of NGO vessels in the proximity of Libyan waters “leads traffickers to force even more migrants on to unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years”. MSF labelled the charges “extremely serious and damaging” and said its humanitarian action was not “the cause but a response” to the crisis.
Leggeri’s comments are not an isolated case and a number of European politicians have put forward similar statements. But their main intent is to divert attention away from their own inactivity and escape responsibility for the growth in irregular crossings and deaths across the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe.
The current focus on search and rescue operations at sea carried out by NGOs signals a more general shift in the political and public mood in Europe. Despite superficial public displays of outrage and condemnation for Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-refugee stances in the US, similar initiatives and a similar rhetoric have gradually become part of the political mainstream in several European member states.
The rush to secure the EU’s southern borders is now firmly at the top of politicians’ agenda. Humanitarian concerns and sympathy for Mediterranean migrants escaping war, persecutions and poverty by boat that peaked at the end of 2015 with the death of Kurdish child Alan Kurdi have since receded.
In a series of court cases, governments have made examples of volunteers and activists, spreading the message that the tide has turned against refugees and their advocates. These include the trials of French farmer Cédric Herrou and Spanish lifeguards in Lesvos.
The EU-Turkey deal: one year on
But the transition from “refugees welcome” to “refugees unwelcome” in Europe has not happened overnight. Three essential steps have had an impact.
First came the implementation of a deal between the EU and Turkey that effectively sealed the Aegean route that was used mostly by Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis. Around 90% of arrivals in Greece in 2015 came from these countries.
Since the introduction of the deal in March 2016 – in which arrivals by sea were meant to be sent back to Turkey in return for others being allowed to travel to Europe from registered refugee camps – arrivals went from thousands a day to a few dozen. By keeping out Syrians and other citizens of “refugee-producing countries” from the EU, to use UNHCR jargon, the main focus of European human sympathy vanished, allowing more anti-immigration and securitarian views to prevail in debates about Mediterranean boat migration.
A year on, the EU-Turkey deal has produced mixed outcomes. While European politicians praised the deal as it succeeded in its main goal of stemming sea crossings, NGOs have pointed out the “massive mental health toll on refugees and migrants” stranded in Turkey.
Its future is uncertain – caught as it is in the diplomatic row between Turkey and the EU over Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to mobilise Turkish diasporas in support of a constitutional referendum that will hand him more powers.
Closing the Aegean route helped EU leaders to shift public attention from the causes that force people to flee their homes to the irregularity of their journeys. It also enabled some to portray boat arrivals from Libya as undeserving “economic migrants”, despite the fact many are escaping violence, persecution and human rights violations, as my research group’s work has shown.
The second step has been that the humanitarian vocabulary, particularly the goal of reducing deaths at sea, has been co-opted by immigration and border officials. This meant, for example, that the closure of the Aegean route which had allowed Syrians to reach safety in the EU was justified as a measure put in place by the EU to save Syrians from drowning. In spite of the fact that the Aegean route from Turkey to Greece was actually quicker, more affordable and by far safer than the route most people are taking from Libya.
Third, the total or partial exclusion of humanitarian groups from the sea consolidates Frontex’s power to report what’s going on in the Mediterranean, and serves its appropriation of the humanitarian narrative. What’s needed are independent and well-respected voices and organisations, such as MSF, to highlight what is happening. This includes raising concerns about the ways Libyan coastguards are performing a role as the EU’s surrogate border enforcers, and the diminished commitment to search and rescue missions by the EU.
The criminalisation of volunteers, activists and NGOs serves to deter European civic society from getting involved, and to ultimately weaken and divide the last bastion against the EU’s tough line on refugees and migrants that now prevails. It is this tough line that is also producing the systematic closure of legal routes out of Syria, trapping Syrians in border camps and protracted legal and existential limbo, and making the crossings from Libya into Italy more dangerous and deadly.