Europe’s final solution: ‘let them drown’ | Maria Pisani

European governments – including Malta – seem to have turned their guns onto NGOs involved in migrant rescue. MARIA PISANI, of the human rights NGO Integra Foundation, argues that the new policy takes things to a new level by justifying large-scale loss of life

Malta has recently implemented a policy of closing its ports to NGO vessels involved in search and rescue (SAR) operations at sea. To quote the captain of one such vessel, this policy ‘contributes to the Mediterranean becoming a mass grave’. Government argues that its intention is the opposite: to ensure that all rescue vessels are ‘operating legally’. As a human rights campaigner, how do you interpret those two, very different arguments?

They’re two very different discourses. There can be absolutely no doubt that the search and rescue vessels have saved thousands upon thousands upon thousands of lives. We also need to remind ourselves that they have been operating for a relatively short time.

‘Death in the Mediterranean’ isn’t something new; the central Mediterranean route is the most lethal by far in the world... and [NGO vessels] have been operating for, what, three or four years? If we just look at statistics: in the last couple of weeks, since the vessels were stopped from operating, we’ve had a 50% increase in the number of deaths.

Last week, it was just under 1,000... now, it’s 1,500. There can be absolutely no doubt... no playing around with figures here... that pulling the vessels away, and stopping their operations, is at the cost of human life. Five hundred deaths in the past week alone. If it had been anyone else, it would be 24/7 headline news globally.

Yet somehow, we are now facing a discourse that justifies this loss of life. [Pause] I’m at a loss. Honestly, I’m at a loss as to where we go from here. That the deaths have been ‘normalised’, in their own right, is already shocking; but to somehow justify it, is... incredible. Simply incredible.

The end cannot justify the means. We’re taking things to a completely different level here. The new policy of stopping search and rescue vessels is deadly...

Another stated government justification is that this policy also ‘sends out a message’ to human traffickers – and also asylum seekers – that: ‘this is the risk you are facing if you try to come to Europe’. Wouldn’t you say that this is also an indirect admission that all other more ‘humane’ approaches have so far failed?

We need a take a historical perspective. The EU approach has been containment throughout: in other words, containing refugee and migrant flows within the African continent.

What we’re seeing is an intensification of this policy. Every time they try a [new] approach, it doesn’t work, because people keep arriving; so they will try something else, then something else again... and each time, the human rights violations become more serious.

The loss of life becomes even steeper. I think the narrative also tends to put too much focus on arrivals, and coming up with new policies to stop people from coming to Europe – without looking at why people are moving in the first place.

Over more than a decade now, we’ve developed a very strong evidence base, speaking to refugees who have taken the Eastern, Western and Central Mediterranean routes. The evidence is conclusive: people are being pushed to move. We need to look at why people are taking these decisions in the first place. If we ignore the situation, and just focus on keeping everybody out of Europe, then our policies will continue to fail. As they have done so far...

At the risk of asking a very open-ended question: is there any real alternative to the containment policy?

People have been asking us over the past couple of weeks: yes, but what are your solutions...?

They put it more bluntly, but yes, that’s what I’m asking too...

My response would be, our ‘solutions’ depend on how we frame the problem. If the problem is arrivals, then yes: containment would appear to be the solution. But if the problem is loss of life, then there are many other solutions we can look at: many solutions that we have proposed over and over again. It depends on how you define the problem. If it’s loss of life at sea, then search and rescue is the obvious solution...

But the conventions of SAR have been in place for centuries, if not millennia. In itself, ‘saving lives at sea’ is not a policy, but rather a long-established obligation. So it cannot really be considered a ‘solution’...

No, of course it isn’t. Ideally, people shouldn’t be forced onto those boats in the first place. Once they get on the boat, however, search and rescue becomes one solution. But if we are saying, ‘we need to stop them from getting on those boats’... then what alternatives do they have? ‘Keeping them there’, for me, is not a solution.

If, however, people are provided safe and legal options, then that is another solution. But again, another solution on its own; because as we know, migration is an extremely complex issue.  There is no ‘silver bullet’, there is no one solution. But putting different options together, I think we can face this contemporary challenge.

You call it a ‘contemporary challenge’, but – let’s face it – it isn’t, really. People have been migrating out of Africa ever since the dawn of mankind. Why is it so much more difficult to cope with today?

Broadly speaking, I would say that what we have here is a contemporary phenomenon. Migration has always existed, yes, but the dynamics today are very different: reflecting a contemporary reality of globalisation. Even in the time that I’ve been working in the field, people [at first] didn’t arrive with mobile phones; then they came with phones with simple text; and today they arrive with smartphones. This changes the dynamics of migration.

But we still seem to be addressing the issue from a very 19th/20th century perspective, with a lot of focus on the nation state. Even the idea of ‘Europe’ as a collective whole is far from a reality. We have 28 – soon to be 27 – member states... each looking after their own interest. These are not responses that reflect contemporary realities. They are very much grounded in another era. In many ways, I think what we are witnessing are the death-throes of the nation state as we know it.

There will be change, because you are not going to stop people from moving. But until we accept this reality, our response still seems to be grounded in bullying... in thuggery... in this notion that ‘might is right’, with very strong echoes of colonial legacies as well. There is a lot of talk about ‘solidarity’.

If we speak about Malta, first and foremost, and the external border states, then I would agree. Where is the solidarity towards the external border states? But then, where is the solidarity towards refugees? Where is the solidarity towards countries of transit? People call for solidarity for themselves, but then adopt a completely different approach with everyone else... grounded in bullying, and thuggery. That is what we are seeing: bullying, and thuggery.

The 10-point plan, adopted by the EU at last week’s summit, seems to place more emphasis on combating trafficking networks than saving lives at sea. Does this signal a militarisation of Europe’s response to migration?

Absolutely. We’ve been seeing a militarisation for a number of years now. The trend has been evident for some time. But I still think we didn’t expect this. That it would get to a point where loss of life is somehow justified. That takes it to another level. Again, however: no one questions the right of a nation state to protect its borders. No one’s screaming for open borders, or no borders. Not at all. But that we place the ‘border’ as priority, because of the perception of a threat... because refugees are perceived as a threat, and also constructed as a threat... and then use that perceived threat to justify policies that result in loss of life... that’s shocking.

The way the discourse has almost spiralled out of control... to the point where we’re not even questioning it anymore... to me, that is truly shocking.

Meanwhile, it appears from the same plan that Malta and Italy’s closed-ports policy has been accepted at EU level...

Yes. I would say that, certainly, the dominant discourse is supporting this approach. The recent development, in terms of stopping SAR operations, is hugely problematic, and as a Maltese I find it very upsetting. But Malta adopted this policy to begin with, because it is on the external border of the EU. Germany, for instance, doesn’t have to deal with [the central Mediterranean route] directly; nor the UK, nor France... but all the same, other member states, barring a few lone voices, are supporting Malta and Italy’s policy. So obviously, our problem is not just with the stance taken by Malta, but also by the member states in general. Another thing we are seeing is a difference between the European Commission and the individual states. At the end of the day, it is the member states that are ‘steering this vessel’... if you’ll pardon the pun. It is they who are taking this stand...

Isn’t is also inevitable, however? Germany was pushing a very different policy a few years ago. There was an election in the meantime, and Merkel’s power-base was considerably eroded, in part because of her immigration stance. Same could be said for Italy. This suggests that democracy, as a force, seems to push countries into adopting such extreme positions...

Because refugees don’t have votes...

... and the people who do, make populist demands of their governments. Could it simply be, then, that European governments are powerless to adopt any other approach?

But I still hold governments responsible for this as well. Let me not speak about Germany, because I don’t know the context well enough. Let’s talk about Malta. Recently I saw a Facebook status update along the lines of: ‘The winds of change are in our favour – now we have the support of government and Opposition’. It was posted by a far-right group, naturally. Personally, I would be curious to know how the government and Opposition feel about this... that a far-right group can claim that they are standing for the same values as them. This did not come from nowhere: we have seen this for many years now. I’m not looking at the present government alone: we have seen a shift to the right under successive governments, caused by fear. Rather than addressing the challenges, facing the issues, and confronting the misinformation head-on... they were weak. They were weak, and they shifted to the right. We saw a similar dynamic in the UK, too: so this is not just about Malta.

Another change is that, while past policies tended (perhaps unintentionally) to portray asylum seekers as ‘criminals’ – only ever seen in handcuffs, etc. – the same strategy seems to now be directed at NGOs. As an NGO representative yourself, how do you feel about that?

[Ironic laugh] Isn’t that why I’m so exasperated? It’s yet another case of: ‘here we go again’...

Earlier you mentioned ‘bullying’ and ‘thuggery’ in strong terms. Do you feel threatened?

No. I don’t feel that, not at all. What I feel is deep sadness... really deep sadness.... because this is new. In the past, it was more frustration... but today, we are justifying loss of life. Not justifying locking people up; but justifying loss of life [...] and the way the whole thing is being spun, so that the persons responsible for rescue are now ‘the problem’... it’s incredible. I still can’t believe we even got to this point. And this isn’t just me speaking; I think I speak on behalf of many others...

To ask a devil’s advocate question: a growing number of people seem to suspect that some of these ‘rescue NGOs’ may be in some sort of ‘collusion’ with human traffickers. And they argue that NGOs should not be ‘above the law’... the Lifeline captain, after all, faces real charges in court...

First it was because he refused to disembark... and that accusation is in itself hugely problematic; then it was because of the registration of the ship; then something else... Fine, if you have an issue with one particular boat: why tar everyone with the same brush? And in saying that, I am definitely not saying that there was, in fact, a problem with the captain of the Lifeline...

But that doesn’t really address the broader suspicion. There have been scandals involving NGOs and charity organisations in the past: Oxfam being a recent example. Can we, hand on heart, say that those suspicions are completely unfounded?

There have been scandals in the past; and I think questioning such matters is a healthy part of a democracy. But I don’t think that this is what it’s all about, at the end of the day. This reflects something much bigger than that. The fact that there were search and rescue operations that successfully saved thousands of lives, but have now become ‘problematic’ because they didn’t stop people from arriving... that is the problem. Which goes back to my original point, that our solutions depend on how we frame the problem. If arrivals are the problem... then let’s not pretend that the problem is ‘deaths at sea’. Let’s at least be honest. If the EU’s intention, as recent history demonstrates, is to stop arrivals at all costs, then it seems to me they have found their final solution: ‘let them drown’.

More in Interview

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition