Delays in rescuing people at sea aren’t a European policy failure. They are a deliberate, cruel strategy
When boats with refugees are at risk of capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea, the speed of rescue operations is essential. Any delay in the emergency response can lead to serious bodily harm or the loss of life.
Still, offering a speedy response in such situations is not one of Europe’s priorities. In a study recently published in the journal Security Dialogue, I argue that time has become increasingly “weaponised” in Mediterranean migration governance.
Over the last decade, and in order to prevent arrivals, European Union authorities have sought out ways to slow down rescue engagement while accelerating interceptions to Libya.
The end of Italy’s humanitarian-military operation Mare Nostrum in 2014 marked a turning point. As a response to a devastating shipwreck on October 3, 2013 near Lampedusa, this operation sped up rescue activities off the Libyan coast, leading to the rescue of about 150,000 people. However, it was denounced by critics as a “pull-factor” that would incentivise the arrival of refugees. Mare Nostrum ended and gave way to successive European operations that experimented with delays in emergency responses.
EU naval operations Triton and Sophia, which followed Mare Nostrum in 2015 and 2016, built delays into their operational designs, intentionally patrolling areas of the Mediterranean Sea where few boats were expected. The consequence — that arriving late at scenes of distress, or not at all, would lead to a rise in deaths — was clearly acceptable.
In the period since 2017, which my article calls the phase of strategic neglect, EU member states have found even more draconian ways to weaponise time. By further withdrawing their rescue assets, European actors have produced a rescue vacuum in the central Mediterranean.
This vacuum has expanded over time: A report published in March 2023 by the Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, a network of non-governmental actors engaging in Search and Rescue activities in the Mediterranean, concluded that “at sea, Maltese authorities regularly abandon those in need of rescue”.
The report said that in 2022, Maltese authorities ignored more than 20,000 people in distress; 413 boats with people needing help were not assisted and only three boats were rescued by Malta’s armed forces. “Non-assistance is now a routine part of a suite of deadly measures aimed at reducing arrivals in Malta,” the report said. So far in 2023, only 92 people have been rescued to Malta.
Italy has also reduced its operational scope, mostly to the areas close to Lampedusa and Sicily. That currently many boats are reaching Italy, with the government declaring a state of emergency in April, does not deny the fact that Italy and Malta continue to leave vast stretches of the sea unattended. Especially in the search and rescue (SAR) zones of Malta and Libya, rescue often comes too late, as recent days have tragically demonstrated once more.
Meanwhile, EU member states have shifted to the skies. Intensified aerial activities, including via drones, search for boats with refugees in the central Mediterranean. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, often justifies these activities as aimed at saving lives. But its use of “aerial assets under its current strategy has not had a meaningful impact on the death rate”, Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics recently noted.
The measurable impact of these aerial surveillance operations has been elsewhere. Since 2017, Libyan forces have forcibly returned more than 100,000 people to torturous conditions, often using speed boats donated by Italy. Routinely guided by European aerial assets, these Libyan forces chase after boats still intact enough to reach Europe while often neglecting stationary boats with people needing immediate help. This shows where their priorities lie. Attacks on refugee boats and their interception off the coast of Tunisia, where racist sentiments have escalated over recent weeks, have also soared.
A 2021 report [PDF] by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights suggested that “the damage and death along the central Mediterranean route … is the result of a failed system of migration governance”, emblematic of which are the “significant delays and failures to render assistance to migrant boats”.
Rather than simply a “failed system”, however, these delays in rescue need to be understood as strategic — and deliberate — elements built into the current system of European migration governance.
The effects of Europe’s weaponisation of time have also been felt among civil rescuers. From 2017 in particular, volunteers and humanitarians working on rescuing refugees in distress have faced increasing hostility and have often been portrayed as taxi services facilitating the arrival of people to Europe. Their rescue efforts have been obstructed and slowed down at every turn.
For example, maritime authorities often withhold information about boats, even if NGOs are closest to the scene of distress. Earlier, NGOs would routinely transfer rescued people to EU military assets and remain operational at sea. Now, they are forced to disembark at EU harbours where they have to undergo cumbersome inspections, often facing lengthy detention and at times criminalisation.
Spending more time shuttling back and forth, or stuck at harbours, NGOs have been forced to cut down on their time at sea. This stealing of operational time was amplified by the “closed harbour policies” of Italy and Malta in 2018, where NGO ships were forced to wait in front of European harbours, sometimes for weeks.
The politically-motivated targeting of NGO rescuers continues. In early 2023, Italy passed a decree which obliges the rescuers to sail to a European harbour immediately after undertaking one rescue operation, thus prohibiting them from staying at sea in search of more boats in distress.
Moreover, following recent rescues carried out by NGOs, the Italian authorities assigned harbours in central and northern Italy. This considerably prolongs the disembarkation process. The civil fleet’s absence from the central Mediterranean will, according to the NGOs, “inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea”. Three of them decided in April to take “legal action against the Italian authorities’ systematic policy of assigning distant ports”.
When in February this year an overcrowded boat capsized off the coast of Crotone in Italy and more than 90 individuals lost their lives, questions were raised about Italy’s delayed reaction to their distress.
When, only a few weeks later, European and Libyan authorities were alerted to a boat at severe risk of capsizing, they waited instead of intervening without delay. Thirty hours after authorities had been alerted, the boat capsized and dozens of people drowned.
Rather than unfortunate or exceptional cases, these disasters highlight something much more systematic. Namely, a deliberate European strategy that weaponises time in order to deter refugee arrivals, no matter the cost.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
*Researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University, Germany. His research focuses on migration struggles in contemporary Europe and (northern) Africa. His book “Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe” was published by Routledge in 2019.