In 2015, Europe had faced the total number of asylum applications rising to a record level since European Union foundation. Several political actors took this opportunity and shifted the narrative on migration by using a very strong anti-humanitarian language and converting the already existing legal and physical “Fortress Europe” into a stronger and more inhuman barrier. The expression “migrant crisis” was labelling the whole phenomenon as a problem caused by migrants, who are ‘flooding’ Europe and have economical or sinister motives trying to change ‘our’ traditional way of living or taking away ‘our benefits’. The lack of will, power or competence allowed populists and xenophobes to win several battles for the core values of the European Community, and the rise in hate speech fueled violence, whilst formerly outcast ideologies, such as nationalism, found their way to parliaments.
The recent EU Parliament Election showed that the sentiment for a liberal and open Europe was stronger. However, in many countries, the struggle is going on, and the odds are difficult to see. The so-called illiberal ideology labels every person who provided or is still going to provide any form of assistance to migrants or refugees as a traitor – a Soros agent, a refugee lover, an enemy or, in some countries, even a criminal. This trend is reaching its peak in Italy, where the biggest number of arrivals by sea is happening. Following a plenty of legal steps, the ban on harbouring ships with refugees on board came into force. As a result, captains and crews of such ships have been arrested or detained, whilst their vessels have been confiscated. Matteo Salvini, the far-right Minister of Interior, demands either denial of arrivals of the boats in Lampedusa, the Southern-most Italian port, or threatens the “perpetrators” with fines of up to 300,000 euros.
Many people ask themselves: Why do refugees head there? Why do they even start their journey? Who are “Sea Watch” people to meddle in this matter at all?
Firstly, most boats start from Libya (a former colony of Italy, by the way), where the humanitarian and refugee situation created a very toxic and dangerous mixture, where the state collapsed and the country split into fractions. It is a failed state, which allows smugglers and warlords to exploit the desperates and offer the service of transportation by small and dangerous boats, which are not suited for sea travels, to set sail towards Europe. Subsequently, refugee arrivals to Italy count tens and hundreds of thousands. Hence, the situation in Italy is not linked to “Sea Watch” or the EU-Libya deal. The camps hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees in Libya are full, and the conditions are so bad that it seems safer to start a journey than to stay, even given the fact that one in 18 passengers on board drowned in 2018. Only in the first half of 2019, the number of victims reached 1,900.
In the heist of the political discussion, the EU leaders decided to make a deal with Libya, which is similar to the EU-Turkey one, and to halt “rescue missions” by the EU. This deal is not just inhuman, it simply does not work, as many EU member states do not voluntarily take asylum seekers (processing the claims, refusing a specific status, etc.), so the process is just stuck. Meanwhile, refugees continue to arrive, but there is nobody to rescue them. And “Sea Watch” had to step in to do that. The attempts to make “Sea Watch” captains be afraid or to block them from safe harbours bring lives of people on board in danger.
I can understand why ordinary people in Italy see Salvini’s harsh policies appealing. I cannot agree with it, but I understand where it comes from… Without a European united solution, they feel to be left alone, with an imaginable burden that was previously upscaled and demonised by campaigns and fake media reports, combined with already existing acute social and economic challenges Italy has been facing.
It is not a solution, though, to tell Italians they are bad, because they do not receive refugees. What we all can do is to get awareness of the situation described and support “Sea Watch” in any way possible. The alternative would be allowing the Mediterranean Sea to become the biggest cemetery and our common humanitarian failure.
Bálint Jósa is a Programme Coordinator at UNITED for Intercultural Action (Amsterdam, Netherlands).