Mediterranea Saving Humans is under attack in Italy. Several members of Mediterranea are accused by the Office of Public Prosecutor of Ragusa of “facilitating illegal immigration.” It is definitely not the first time that such an accusation has been used to criminalize civil migrant rescue operations at sea. One of the prosecutors in Ragusa had initiated in 2004 the case against Cap Anamur, which ended in the full acquittal of all charges. In recent days other NGOs have been targeted with similar charges in Sicily. Solidarity with migrants and refugees reaching Italy across the “Balkan route” is also at the center of judicial investigations and police operations. Also migrants are criminalized, as in the case of the “El Hiblu 3” in Malta and Moria in Greece. Once again, we are confronted with attempts to give priority to border security over the duty to rescue people at risk. While lawyers continue to fight in court against such violations of international and human rights law, there is also a need to stand up politically and to affirm the key role of migrant sea rescue and solidarity practices in the struggle for a more open and democratic Europe.
The criminalization of Mediterranea is emblematic of the current conjuncture. The charge is built around a maritime operation carried out by the ship Mare Jonio (run by Mediterranea) on September 11, 2020. At the beginning of August, the oil tanker Maersk Etienne rescued 27 migrants in the Maltese SAR zone. Although the Maltese authorities coordinated the rescue operation, they never assigned a “Place of Safety” and the 27 migrants were forced to spend 37 days on a ship floating in the Central Mediterranean without medical facilities and proper accommodation. It was probably the longest stand-off in the history of the Mediterranean, and we should stress that the 27 migrants were in critical condition due to their arduous journey, including prolonged detention in Libya. The Mare Jonio answered a request of the captain of the Maersk Etienne and the medical staff of Mediterranea went on board, immediately realizing the unbearable conditions of the migrants. A transshipment was organized, and the Mare Jonio immediately set sail toward Sicily, where the migrants were eventually authorized to disembark.
The Public Prosecutor contends that there was a “financial agreement” between the ship owners of the Mare Jonio and Maersk Tankers. This charge has already been shown false by a detailed statement of the Danish Company and we do not need to dwell on that here. More important is the fact that the Maersk Etienne case is part and parcel of a relatively long history of European measures and policies that aim at discouraging commercial ships from engaging in operations of sea rescue. From this point of view, the collaboration between an oil tanker owned by a leading global player in the shipping industry and the small tug boat Mare Jonio is really not surprising. It indicates the potential of an alliance among a wide variety of civil actors operating at sea around the issue of migrant rescue. It is important to recognize that many shipping companies are very concerned about this issue, often combining humanitarian motivations and commercial interests. The fact that members of Mediterranea participated in meetings with European Shipowners’ associations and Shipping companies in recent months must have been perceived as the potential opening up of the struggle for sea rescue on a new scale. And it is easy to imagine that this appeared as a threat to prosecutors (and politicians) who obsessively contend that states should be the exclusive actors in sea rescue, even though in vast stretches of sea state interventions are completely absent.
Especially given the fact that the Mediterranean Sea continues to be the most lethal border in the world, we want to show unconditional solidarity with Mediterranea as well as with the other NGOs under attack. We support the coalition of civil actors engaged as a “civil fleet” in solidarity with migrants and refugees at sea and on land. We are convinced that this coalition, which continues to grow and to create unexpected alliances, already foreshadows a new Europe and new relations with its outsides in the South as well as in the East. We are particularly concerned for Mediterranea, which is currently blocked from undertaking rescue operations at sea. And we know how expensive are the lawyers’ fees and other legal expenses necessary to defend against legal attacks such as the one launched by the Public Prosecutor of Ragusa. For all these reasons we launch an international fundraising campaign in support of Mediterranea. And we strongly invite all citizens and organizations convinced that rescue should be prioritized over everything else to contribute to the fundraising.
[published on March 17, 2021 by Critical Legal Thinking]
Saving Humans USA is a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit and Public Charity. All proceeds are used for the project Mediterranea Saving Humans