Hopes and Memories
Alba Saiz Contreras
Edited by Faustas Norvaisa
The never-ending cycle of hope in the Mediterranean Sea
For many of us, the Mare Nostrum signifies a peaceful and warm summer delight. A place of incalculable historical, cultural and political value, the witness of our childhood and the protagonist of our summer memories. However, for many others, the Mediterranean Sea represents the most dangerous border in the world.
Most humanitarian organisations claim that due to the difficult nature of identifying and recounting dead bodies in the sea, it is impossible to have a clear guess on the gravity of the emergency. In fact, some reports state that the number of people who drowned and were never found could even reach twelve thousand between the years 2014 and 2018 (Deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea 2022, 2023). According to UNHCR, in 2016 more than three thousand people died trying to reach European coasts (Refugees, 2016). Nevertheless, depending on the source we resort to, these figures may vary significantly. Suffering can materialise in any form of loss of dignity or dehumanisation, however, the universal value for human life has allowed a tendency to measure the gravity of any emergency in relation to death figures (Calhoun, 2010). Therefore, mortality disparities account for a particular interest of organisations and institutions to shape the way the Mediterranean emergency is delivered, and last instance, perceived by the rest of the population.
Still, most statistics agree on a general increase in the report of deaths during the last ten years, and particularly after the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal. Migration has traditionally been a common issue between European countries and Turkey, and in fact it has encouraged the creation of several bilateral agreements. However, the persistence of the Bashar al-Assad government in relation to the Syrian conflict which started in 2011, and the European struggle to process large numbers of asylum seekers’ demands, motivated the coordinated action of both governments to contain the flow of people. Through this pact, the EU committed to help Turkey, both financially and materially, in the relocation of refugees and to work on a closer political and economic relationship with their european/asian neighbour. On the other hand, Erdogan agreed to deport illegal immigrants that tried to enter Europe through Greece and to intensify the control of his borders (What is the EU-Turkey deal? | The IRC in the EU, 2022). As a result, other longer and significantly more dangerous migration routes, which were already frequently used by migrants travelling from North Africa, became highly popular among those who tried to get to Europe. The increase of demand, profited by human smugglers who overloaded the precarious flat-bottomed boats, as well as the significant number of kilometres that separates Tripoli from Lampedusa, makes the Central Mediterranean route the deadliest pathway to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In most cases, migrants do not expect to arrive on the coasts, but they just wait in the sea until a ship discovers and rescues them. Hope for somebody to come and aid them becomes their only option.
And in such dire situation, how can we not go and save them?
Indeed, this question has set the origin for multiple humanitarian projects, organisations and charities that work at sea. Proactiva Open Arms, Sea Watch, SOS Mediterranee, Sea Eye, Cadus, Jugen Rettet, or Boat Refugee Foundation are only some of the organisations involved in the Mediterranean Search and Rescue project. Many of them take migrants out of the watercrafts they travel in and transport them to the Italian port designated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, while others are only entitled to patrolling tasks. However, all of them, considering the non-existence of adequate institutional rescue missions in the Mediterranean, are committed to assisting drifting migrants in distress (SOS Mediterranee, 2021).
The role of volunteers, and aid workers has been crucial. They have not only saved the lives of millions of people, providing survivors with food and medical and psychological assistance, but also they give immigrants a voice, exposing what they have had to go through and creating awareness of the dangerous nature of the Mediterranean sea. As a matter of fact, during the last years, and to the eyes of the western general population, non-profit humanitarian organisations have become the solution to distant suffering (Calhoun, 2010). Therefore, it is not unusual to encounter discourses that denounce the inaction of national governments, while spreading a feeling of pessimism and hopelessness in our political system but also in our own role as civil society. It is forever laudable that people like Òscar Casas, founder of proactiva open arms, use their own savings, travel to inhospitable places and embark into dangerous journeys to rescue those waiting for them. However, as a society of critical citizens that everyday becomes more politically demanding, we need to question to what extent we want to be content with a system that depends on the action of individual subjects to provide hope.
The migratory crisis and the subsequent 2016 humanitarian emergency in the Mediterranean Sea made evident the lack of coordination and coherence between the humanitarian organisations’ rescuing endeavours and the legal and institutional framework that regulates action in the Mediterranean. The duty to render assistance in sea is one of the core principles of maritime and international humanitarian law as stated by numerous international conventions. This responds to a morally evident obligation to help a person in distress, especially when their survival is conditioned to our actions. Nevertheless, since the start of 2023, four hundred and sixty nine people have perished in the Mediterranean Sea (Mediterranean | Missing Migrants Project, 2023). The political connotations natural to the migration issue, the large efforts countries have done to integrate asylum-seekers, the fear of a “call-effect”, the influence of mafias and trafficking networks, or the general tendency towards securitisation of borders could be some of the factors behind a loose interpretation of the duty to rescue. As a result, we often learn about incidents which denotes the failure of a official organism like the European Border and Coast Guard to respond on time to distress calls, the neglection of the deadliest areas during patrolling works, the prevalence of interception and return over rescuing objectives, and the denial of european coastal governments to allow the entrance of rescuing ships to their ports (Campbell, 2017). Non-governmental humanitarian organisations report these actions as highly limiting to humanitarian organisations’ capacities to assist and save those who hope to be rescued (Cusumano, 2017). Impartiality, neutrality and independence are the bases of humanitarian work, However, it has been proven that a common perspective that contributes to the creation of a coordinated action plan is needed to succeed. And far away from the despairing discourse that rends us good-for-nothing, we may have a fundamental role in achieving it.
Any public policy, but in particular migration policies, are a reflection of society’s concerns, fears, values and aspirations. At the end of the day we participate in the election of governments that are meant to represent our interests. Therefore, we do have a say in the way the humanitarian crisis has been handled, as we do have a responsibility with respect to the policies implemented by our governments. Maybe not all of us have the resources to physically go and save them. Nevertheless, through awareness, critical thinking, accountability and political participation we can demand the compliance of the duty to rescue, and ultimately alternative measures that ensure safe migrations. It is very easy to think we are hopeless, that there is nothing we can do, or that the problem is too distant to our own reality. But as a society we can do better and we have to do better, because there are people whose hopes to survive are placed on us.
Campbell, Z. (2017) ‘Abandoned at sea’, The Intercept. Available at: https://theintercept. com/2017/04/01/europe-keeps-its-rescue-ships-far-from-the-coast-of-libya- where-thousands-of-refugees-have-drowned/.
Cusumano, E. (2017) ‘The sea as humanitarian space: Non-governmental Search and Rescue dilemmas on the Central Mediterranean migratory route’, Mediterranean Politics, 23, pp. 387–394.
Deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea 2022 (no date) Statista. Available at: https:// www.statista.com/statistics/1082077/deaths-of-migrants-in-the-mediterranean- sea/ (Accessed: 24 March 2023).
Mediterranean | Missing Migrants Project (no date). Available at: https://missingmigrants.iom.
SOS Mediterranee (2021) ‘SOS Mediterranee - About us’, 28 November. Available at: https:// en.sosmediterranee.org/about-us/ (Accessed: 24 March 2023). UNHCR (2015b) Rescue at sea: A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees, UNHCR.Availableat:https://www.unhcr.org/publications/brochures/450037d34/ rescue-sea-guide-principles-practice-applied-migrants-refugees.html (Accessed: 25 March 2023).
UNHCR (no date a) Mediterranean death toll soars, 2016 is deadliest year yet, UNHCR. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/10/580f3e684/ mediterranean-death-toll-soars-2016-deadliest-year.html (Accessed: 24 March 2023).
What is the EU-Turkey deal? | The IRC in the EU (no date). Available at: https://eu.rescue.org/ article/what-eu-turkey-deal (Accessed: 24 March 2023).int/region/ mediterranean?region incident=All&route=All&year%5B%5D=11681&month=All&incident_ date%5Bmin%5D=&incident_date%5Bmax%5D=