Becoming Part of the Migrant Smuggling System
At sea, rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, 25-year-old Giorgia Linardi met a woman that reminder of her mother. Like her mother, the woman was a doctor, a specialist; their ages were similar. But, unlike her mother, this woman had lost her family, her home, had no phone to call her brother in Germany, and so was prostituting herself for $5 a time, as she tried to raise the money to buy herself a spot on a rubber boat to Europe.
Giorgia, a volunteer legal advisor with the rescue NGO, Sea-Watch, speaks about the plight of the people on those boats and the razor-sharp dilemma of would-be rescuers.
You have been undertaking rescues with Sea-Watch for a year now, both in the central Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. What condition are the people in when you find them?
Leaving Turkey, people have to hide themselves in the woods. They are abused, persecuted, arrested, tortured and sometimes the women have to prostitute themselves in order to get on board. In Libya, they are detained for months in prison or prison-like houses where they eat on the floor and are beaten all the time.
There are major crimes related to people smuggling involved in some cases. I have seen cases of women travelling with a group of children of the same age. These women are offered cheaper rates to act on behalf of human traffickers working in the slave trade to Europe.
All these things mean that the physical and mental condition we find these people in can be horrible. They usually haven’t eaten for a long time. They are highly dehydrated if they have been at sea for some time, sometimes having drunk seawater.
This is particularly the case in the central Med, where the trip is longer than in the Aegean. In the central Med, Sea-Watch operates in a tract of sea that is 260 nautical miles wide, whereas in the Aegean the passage from Turkey to Greece is five nautical miles.
In the Aegean, they are generally in better condition, but winter is very cold there. In rubber boats, they are literally freezing. We’ve had cases of people needing limbs removed after their journey, because their hypothermia was too advanced for the doctors to save them. Treated promptly, amputation could have been avoided.
It seems like few Europeans empathize with these people. They feel the people making these journeys are so different from us, and this makes me angry. We cannot see ourselves in the same situation, of course, because it is so horrible. We are not used to it, and yet these people are seldom able to speak for themselves. When they do, the only thing they can do is make a desperate plea for help. This is a very dehumanizing situation to be in.
Initially, wooden boats were more commonly used in the central Med, but now rubber boats are commonly being used by traffickers in both regions. How does this impact rescue efforts?
Around 150 people can be crammed on a rubber boat which is made from material just a millimeter or two thick, and extremely unstable. The boats have very small engines that are incapable of propelling the weight of all the people crowded on. Usually the women and children are in the middle, and we cannot even see them, so we often don’t know how many people are actually on the boat. When you take them off, it’s like a magic trick. You can’t imagine where they are all coming from.
The situation is problematic during their journey, because they can’t move, and they risk suffocation. We witnessed one case where a child died in the water inside the boat. The search and rescue team brought him to shore, but it was too late.
The rubber boats usually carry less people than wooden boats, though, and there is still something you can hang on to if it sinks. Wooden boats sink quickly, and you have two or three hundred people falling into the water all at once.
How are relations between NGO rescuers and Coast Guard agencies?
Usually, in the central Med, the smugglers give each rubber boat a satellite phone so they can make a distress call. The boats are not meant to make it to Europe really, just out to where they can be picked up. There is a rescue coordination center managed by the Coast Guard in Rome, and they receive the distress calls and then direct the rescue boats.
In the central Med, we work very well with the Coast Guard. The NGOs, such as MSF, MOAS, Sea-Watch and others, are the only other operators with a search and rescue mandate. There are a lot of naval ships in the area, and they will assist if needed, but it is not their sole mandate like it is the NGOs’.
In the Aegean, our relationship with the Coast Guard has always been a little bit more difficult. They do not trust the work of the NGOs and have prohibited us from patrolling, because they see us as a “pull factor” encouraging people to attempt the crossing. They have threatened to accuse us of facilitating illegal immigration even if we only assist boats once they cross the border between Turkey and Greece. So, it’s been a bit up and down, and there is not the centralized coordination that there is in the central Med.
What are the issues from a human rights perspective?
What happens to these people before they leave and as they make their journey is a violation of many basic human rights. These people have no choice other than taking the sea route and putting themselves in a very dangerous situation to enter Europe. It’s the only way they can flee, because we don’t allow legal passage, safe passage.
They are people who have no other place to go – most of them. Of course, there are different cases, but to have to put yourself in a situation of distress to initiate the obligation of rescue at sea. That is really perverse. It is a violation of the right to life because Europe is not providing an efficient and international search and rescue system despite years of having these crossings happen.
The situation is also difficult because we are working in a legal vacuum. There is a huge legal framework in terms of search and rescue, and for sure, each state has an obligation to rescue anyone found in distress at sea, no matter whether they are tourists, migrants or refugees. The problem is that there is no agreed definition of distress.
To the Greek Coast Guard, a rubber boat full of people who could potentially make it to shore is not a distress case, so they don’t need to assist. Actually, the Greek coast can be very treacherous, and we would assist boats in the Aegean to approach the rocky shoreline to ensure they had a safe passage. We have witnessed many incidents where the boat’s engine would stop or a tube deflate. It is important to be there on the spot, otherwise it’s too late
While on board you act as legal advisor for the Sea-Watch team. Why is this necessary?
My biggest job for the organization is to make sure that we stay on the safe side of the law and to train crews about the risks and responsibilities related to their engagement in rescue at sea. We are always being threatened with arrest for facilitating illegal immigration. The situation is sad, because instead of having support for humanitarian action at sea, we are facing a lot of issues. We have had to limit our actions in many cases, especially in the Aegean, because of this threat of being arrested.
At the same time, I understand that it is very easy for organizations like us to end up being part of the smuggling system, because we don’t have any boundaries. It would be very easy for us to establish contacts on the Turkish shore or the Libyan shore and get more information about the people who leave.
Then again, you never know who you are talking to. It might even be that you are actually becoming part of the smuggling system. We try to stay on the safe side, but it is tricky. There is a subtle different between helping people and becoming part of the business. We are on the edge.
There is resistance in some sections of European society to accepting migrants. Do you see this as justifiable?
At one shipwreck, I remember seeing a baby bottle full of milk, just floating there. That feels very wrong to me. I know it is a huge problem. Where are we going to put all the people that are coming? How are we going to integrate them? It is a very difficult task for Europe, but at the same time there is no choice.
As a free, democratic institution, we have to assist these people. It is an act of solidarity, of civilization. You cannot just shut the door to people that are fleeing what they are fleeing. As a European citizen, I do not accept that these people should be drowning literally before our eyes.
While being active in search and rescue is seen as being a “pull factor” that increases the rate of landing success, the reality is that these people are going to cross anyway.
My feeling is that this is just the start of the migration phenomenon, not the end. Most recently, we have started seeing people coming from Egypt – a trip that takes at least a week, so we are expecting the worst this summer.
What does the future hold for Sea-Watch?
We will continue operating at least until the end of summer. Then we will be asking ourselves, what is the political sense of this, because, on one hand, it is important to have assets at sea to conduct rescues. On the other hand, our aim at the beginning was to be a provocation to the institutions of Europe. We are just European citizens, and we are rescuing people. We can do it, so you can do it – you have to do it!
What is happening, though, is that we are substituting ourselves for them. We have become part of a system that does not take responsibility. The question is, should we continue for ever, or at some point, should we stop and make that statement. That is a hard decision to make, because there are people in need of help.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.