EU Asylum Pact: Sea rescue is important? Monitoring and restrictions are more 

EU Asylum Pact: Sea rescue is important? Monitoring and restrictions are more 

October 19, 2020

Our statement on the position paper published Sept 23, 2020

As part of its proposed asylum and migration pact, the EU Commission has issued a recommendation concerning the further dealing with civil sea rescue. With regard to private ships, this recommendation consists of the following:

– Member States should ensure the safety of NGO vessels

– Flag and coastal states “should exchange information, on a regular and timely basis, on the vessels involved in particular rescue operations and the entities that operate or own them”.

– “The availability to the competent authorities of all information that they require to monitor and verify compliance with standards for safety at sea as well as relevant rules on migration management.”

In plain language: the size of sewage tanks or a light bulb in the wrong place are more important than people who practically drown in front of all of us, every damn day. The EU’s response to the fact that hundreds of people are still dying in the Mediterranean is a fundamental expression of mistrust towards the actors who for years have been taking on the task that actually falls to the EU – namely to save lives. Monitoring, ever stricter requirements and opaque legislative initiatives are intended to prevent our ships from leaving port. 

We work to provide people in distress with the safety that the EU denies them. 

The EU Commission’s recommendation is another building block in Fortress Europe. We assure the Commission that walls, borders and surveillance will not stop us from fulfilling our duty.

Here is the reasoning of the commission in extracts with our remarks:

Italic quoted from Commission Recommendation on cooperation among Member States concerning operations carried out by vessels owned or operated by private entities for the purpose of search and rescue activities

1) Providing assistance to any persons found in distress at sea is a legal obligation of Member States […] The EU is not meeting this obligation. Countless cases of boats in distress, whose distress calls were deliberately not answered or were answered with massive delay, especially in the central Mediterranean and especially through Malta, are proof of this.

2) […] address the roots of irregular migration […] There are no legal, safe escape routes to Europe. Whether or not a person is entitled to asylum in the EU must never decide about his or her life.  

3) […] making in particular the Central Mediterranean route to Europe the deadliest worldwide. Nevertheless, the EU has decided to withdraw completely from search and rescue operations.

4)[…] The EU and the member States have reinforced their capacity in the Mediterranean […] such as Themis (formerly Triton), Poseidon and Indala, as well as […] operation Sophia […] The EU’s capacities for search and rescue operations have been reduced to zero. The deadly consequences have been brought to the EU’s attention on several occasions by the IOM and UNHCR and it has been called upon to resume such operations immediately, most recently in August this year on the occasion of the tragic death of at least 45 people off the Libyan coast.

5)[…] there is a need to avoid criminalization of those who provide humanitarian assistance to people in distress at sea […] The numerous pending proceedings against sea rescuers, the detention of ships and threats of heavy fines show that the criminalization of civil sea rescue is common practice in the EU.

6) […] the European Parliament called for greater search and rescue capacities for people in distress […] and for the support provided by private actors and NGOs in carrying out rescue operations at sea and on land to be acknowledged. This call, which dates back more than two years, has only been followed by actions that were and are intended to do the exact opposite. In these 2 years almost 3000 people have died or are missing in the Mediterranean Sea.

7) Search and rescue operations in emergency situations require coordination and rapid disembarkation in a place of safety, and respect for the fundamental rights of rescued people […] Since years, ships that have rescued people in distress had to wait, often for a very long time, to be allowed to call at an EU port. These forced waiting times can last several weeks and are extremely painful for all involved. The cooperation with the Libyan coast guard and the repatriation of people into torture and misery in this civil war country, which the EU has stipulated in a treaty, fundamentally disregards the basic rights of the refuge people.

8) A new form of search and rescue operations in the European maritime landscape has emerged in recent years whereby vessels operated by NGOs in the Central Mediterranean Sea have been engaged […] In many cases, these vessels conducted consecutive rescue operations before disembarking those rescued at a place of safety. Since the cessation of state-organized sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean, civil organizations are the only remaining actors. They perform this task because the European Union does not do so.

9) […] it is essential to avoid a situation in which migrant smuggling or human trafficking networks […] take advantage of the rescue operations conducted by private vessels in the Mediterranean. The presumed presence of a pull factor by the mere existence of civil sea rescue has been scientifically disproved several times. This pull-effect is suggestively tried to be reintroduced as a fact by the commission here.

10) […] Among others, the need to avoid disembarkation in territories where the lives and freedoms of those alleging a well-founded fear of prosecution […] should be taken into account […] But this is exactly what happens every day due to the cooperation agreed between the EU and Libya, which consists in forcibly returning people to Libya. The EU pays the Libyan coast guard for this “activity”.

11) The regular presence of NGO vessels […] triggers specific operational needs of enhanced coordination and cooperationbetween the vessels carrying rescued persons and national authorities […] Especially off Malta, but not limited to it, such cooperation does not take place, but on the contrary is deliberately and intentionally avoided. Numerous emergencies at sea are emphatic proof of this. 

12) Private vessels engaged in rescue efforts in the Mediterranean are involved in complex, often recurring search and rescue operations […] It is therefore a matter of public policy, including safety, that these vessels are suitably registered and properly equipped […] From the very beginning, the vessels of civil sea rescue operate in a way that ensures the safety of the people on board. We are not aware of any cases of improper registration or operations that have endangered the health or lives of the crews of the NGO ships. Danger to life and limb exists for the people on the run. NRO ships are on duty to rescue these people. In this context, public order will only be restored when Europe is no longer prepared to accept the death of people on its external borders.

13) The continued disembarkation of rescued people in coastal Member States […] place increased and immediate pressure […] The immense burden on states with an external EU border is a consequence of the failed Dublin system and not of civil sea rescue.

14) […] the Commission adopted an “Action plan […]”which included the development by Italy, of a code of conduct for NGOs carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean […] An agreement on this Code of Conduct was already reached at the end of 2017. This is already three full years ago and does not open up any need for change at this point in time.

15) Beyond coordination efforts established so far […] there remains a need to address the specificity of the search and rescue practice which has arisen in the Mediterranean over the past years by setting up a more structural, reliable and sustainable framework […] Cooperation with private entities that own or operate vessels for the purpose of carrying out search and rescue activities and bringing rescued people into EU territory is also necessary; such a framework should also aim to provide appropriate information as regards the operations and the administrative structure of these entities […] At present there is only the opposite of coordination efforts with civil sea rescue. Nor is there any willingness to cooperate. The arbitrary designation of ships or search planes, the imposition of high technical requirements on ships, etc., are impressive proof of this. The EU Commission’s response evidently consists primarily in the demand for targeted monitoring of civil society actors in sea rescue.

16) The Commission will establish an interdisciplinary Contact Group […] It will liaise regularly with relevant stakeholders […] notably Frontex and, as appropriate, non-governmental organizations carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean […] The assessment of whether NGOs will be involved in the decision-making process is the responsibility of a contact group, which will rely primarily on Frontex, i.e. the border police. In case of doubt, the Contact Group will therefore not draw up its recommendations to the Commission on the basis of the knowledge and experience of the sea rescue operations. In view of the complete absence of state sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean, this means a seamless continuation of current policy.

17) The Commission will take into account the work of the Contact Group […] when developing the Euuropean Asylum and Migration Management Strategy […] as appropriate […] Such a strategy cannot be developed effectively without drawing on the experience of NGOs, because state actors not only no longer participate in the rescue, but also massively impede it, make it impossible or, as in the case of the Libyan coast guard or the illegal pushbacks by the Greek coast guard in the Aegean, do not even shy away from human rights violations.

18) This Recommendation is without prejudice to any duty of cooperation and any other obligation stemming from relevant international and Union law. International law, the Geneva Convention on Refugees and many more are violated daily by the EU. A recommendation such as the one presented here is completely worthless without a correction of this course, it intentionally continues these violations of law.

Link to EU document

Photo: Hermine Poschmann

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