Stop Jailing People for Saving Refugees’ Lives in the Mediterranean

A prosecutor in Sicily has charged twenty-one people, including the crew of the Iuventa migrant rescue ship, with aiding illegal immigration. The potential long jail terms show how European countries have criminalized aid for refugees — and how little they care about the thousands who drown in the Mediterranean.

Twenty-one people face jail for helping to save the lives of refugees on the Mediterranean Sea. (Flickr)

In spring 2019 Italian prosecutors opened an investigation into Miguel Roldán, a Spanish firefighter. A potential two-decade sentence was attached to his crime — namely, aiding drowning people. One of a number of such investigations into aid crews, it was part of a long war pursued by Europe’s reactionaries against refugee rescue operations.

Italy took a leading role in this, not least under the pugnacious Il Capitano — the far-right Matteo Salvini, the country’s interior minister until the end of summer 2019. Rescue captains Carola Rackete and Pia Klemp were also arrested that spring, joining two hundred fifty people arrested for similar offenses including the mayor of a small Italian town.

That autumn, Ursula von der Leyen entered the European Commission presidency. Her opening speech appeared to be a continent away from Salvini’s rhetoric. She belonged to a German government who had rendered more than its fair share of humanitarian assistance. The refugee crisis was a shame upon the continent, she said. And she had skin in the game, having personally adopted and cared for a young Syrian refugee. She was cited as an example of how the right-wing populist tide could be halted across the world.

But the speech turned sharply a few paragraphs later. Von der Leyen announced that Frontex, the EU’s border agency, would take on thousands of new guards. One defense of this move held that their role would involve rescue — and yet, increased enforcement has already made the Mediterranean more lethal. Worse, patrol boats are giving way to drones which cannot carry out rescues and can only impassively observe disasters. This colossal humanitarian crisis is occurring not on the other side of the planet, but just off Europe’s beach resorts.

And Von der Leyen’s launch had one final sting in the tail; the gathering of migration policy under a commissioner for “Protecting Our European Way of Life,” a Trumpian title that sparked outrage even in Brussels circles. Such “protection” is premised, however much it publicly baulks at the consequences, on perpetuating a saltwater graveyard where six people a day die preventable deaths, including thousands of people who died while the predominant European policy focus was on Brexit, and tens of thousands since the 1990s.

It is an organism with limbs and antennae in run-down detention centers outside London and Glasgow, in the sun-drenched skies over the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas, in mountain border posts in the Balkans, and in air-conditioned committee rooms in the EU’s Berlaymont HQ in Brussels.

A Feature Not a Bug

Three years and a pandemic later, the case against the Iuventa, the search-and-rescue vessel on which Roldán once worked, is back. On March 3, 2021, the prosecutor in Trapani, Sicily officially charged twenty-one people and three organizations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, including Roldán and the Iuventa crew.

The charges relate to rescues carried out between 2016 and 2017, with evidence gained by undercover agents in direct contact with Salvini, ostensibly providing “security” on rescue boats under the auspices of a security firm whose boss is linked to far-right group Generation Identity. One of these spies later expressed regret and admitted he had no evidence of a relationship between NGOs and people smugglers. If convicted, the crews could face decades in jail.

This is the decision of a local prosecutor. But rather like Von der Leyen’s speech, it exposes the brutal system in which a dizzying range of people and organizations are complicit. It may be tempting to view this case as a simple moral failure. But it is so much more than an unpleasant bug in the system. Across ideological divides from Von der Leyen to Salvini, and across moral frameworks and cultural backgrounds, Europe is complicit.

Refugees and migrants after being rescued at sea on June 10, 2017 off Lampedusa, Italy. Chris McGrath / Getty

The Mediterranean murder machine is the system, that reproduces itself through all of its constituent parts, along every point of the refugee journey. The far right, the mainstream right, and liberals in local and global politics; police forces, armies, and military security contractors; think tanks and academics; criminals and traffickers; all share in producing and reproducing human suffering.

The most brutal, and brutally honest, component in that system is the renewed hard-right as represented by Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini, or inspired by Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump further afield. In its account, those who seek a better life across the sea essentially deserve their death. This external enemy has given a narrative unity to the far right across Europe, allowing it to shift a general malaise into racism, both on the street and at the ballot box.

There is, of course, real discontent in coastal communities that have been negatively affected by the sudden influx of people — but here, there have also been considerable expressions of solidarity which are neglected or even outlawed. The far-right current is in the personal politics of many border police, and often their institutional leaderships. On the fringes, it also inspires vigilante “migrant hunters” in helicopter gunships.

There are also those whose investment in this economy of suffering is less ideological and more financial. There are the people traffickers who profit off misery and sometimes treat life so cheaply that they fling people into the sea in order to avoid being caught smuggling.

There are the gangsters who reportedly run both smuggling operations and reception centers. There is every contractor who runs squalid accommodation in Britain, rips off state-run refugee camps over mattresses and tent pegs in Greece, or whose shareholders’ dividends are dictated by each new mile of razor wire and weaponry sold.

Elsewhere, a section of the body politic acts to cloud and complicate what should be a very instinctive, unpolitical response to suffering. Mainstream conservatives (generally) acknowledge that the intentions of Miguel Roldán and his ilk were good but ultimately misguided. The chance of encountering a rescue boat “encourages” people to make a lethal journey, they say, in a vacuum of evidence.

Treating these (non-)people with decency will only encourage them. The unarguable evils of the traffickers become used as arguments not to open safe routes, but to bomb their boats and infrastructure, inevitably risking more refugee lives in the process.

This doctrine of tolerating mass death out of simple practicality extends into liberalism; into many people who would place themselves on the Left and be appalled by Trump’s border walls. Even Von der Leyen’s opposition candidate from the center-left European Socialists spent several years acting as the Commission’s go-between in a set of tawdry deals involving paying Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey to detain refugees, claiming most were simply economic opportunists. The doublethink in Von der Leyen’s inaugural speech is replicated across mainstream politics.

Prisons of History

The self-styled enlightened nations often claim their commitment to values and human rights distance it from the less civilized world. In one sense it’s true: Europe does not abuse, torture, or enslave refugees, but merely makes deals to return them to places that do. Frontex does not drown people — it shifts the patterns of its patrols in a way that makes having to rescue people less likely. Europe sniffs at the outrages of member states like Hungary, while confining the issue to its periphery, for instance by threatening to close the border with Greece if it could not prevent people journeying northward.

Those who make the crossing are condemned to extended stays in neglected camps. The coronavirus pandemic, as well as legitimizing even harsher entry control measures, has created a time bomb in refugee camps. In Greece, suspected cases have been forcibly isolated together in shipping containers with three-level bug-ridden bunk beds.

The lack of effective government response has indicated (unsurprisingly) little regard for camp-dwellers, but also a shocking lack of recognition that underfunded, ham-fisted approaches to potential virus clusters put the general population at risk.

Meanwhile, those who do not drown or face random deportation, and who arrive in a place that makes some effort to aid their integration have still not escaped the system. Their interests as workers will be pitted against those of domestic workers, in a grim race to the bottom. Among the refugees’ ranks will be liberals, socialists, conservatives, and everything else and yet their contributions will rarely be articulated in public discourse; they are subjects upon who “we” will decide the correct policy.

This system endures. The European polity (including Brexit Britain) prefers to think of 1945 as Year Zero — but there was no clear endpoint between European colonization of the globe, the carving up of postcolonial borders, and the birth of neocolonial relationships of extraction. The European polity continues the internal discipline of its own periphery from the Greek financial crisis to Balkan structural adjustments, and the maintenance of an iron wall around its supposed utopia of free exchange and free movement. It promotes its cultures and historic relationships across the world but will not honor requests for sanctuary within the embrace of those relationships.

This current history informs present and future strategy, and not just because many of those seeking sanctuary are refugees from Western military misadventures or colonial hangovers. Europe’s Mediterranean border is not enough for its architects; a concerted military-diplomatic approach is underway to push that border further south into Africa and collaborate with whatever questionable regimes are necessary to that end. It is not hard to speculate about the endpoint of this grand strategy. The global North (wrongly) believes it can use vast peripheries to insulate itself by force from the migrations, upheavals, and challenges to the nation-state posed by climate chaos.

Challenging the Murder Machine

We are used to systems that normalize the senseless and monstrous. We live with starvation amid wealth, homelessness amid luxury skyscrapers, and more recently health workers responding to a pandemic in bin bags. Yet the normalization of this vast system of multinational institutions and street gangs, liberals and conservatives, law enforcers and criminals, all complicit in a vast economy of suffering at the foot of our beach resorts, is an extreme case, nonetheless.

So too is the idea that in a coalition of advanced liberal democracies, a firefighter who takes part in an operation to save thousands of lives is worthy of a potential life in jail while those who perpetuate the processes behind such loss of life are worthy of lives in public office.

The case of the arrested rescuers is interesting for another reason. Sometimes it seems impossible to fight. The political environment seems as immutable as the sea itself and restructuring it a task as arrogant and foolish as stemming the tides. Yet the twenty-one arrestees and all their peers did fight, both practically saving lives in huge numbers, and symbolically demonstrating that this system can be penetrated.

As well as the cross-political complicity in the crisis, there are also voices throughout politics — liberals and even some conservatives — whose humanity has risen above so-called realpolitik. Building a coalition which can expose and overcome this monstrosity is still within our grasp.

The inhumanity of the Mediterranean machine does not occur just because of some people with moral deficiencies, it occurs because of the historic and present imbalance of wealth and power. The logic of upholding this imbalance is why figures across the moral and ideological spectrum perpetuate the scale of suffering it. The experience of people like Miguel Roldán, and British firefighter Brendan Woodhouse who was detained in a similar incident, points to how trade unionists and socialists can make a difference.

From the UK Fire Brigades Union demonstration in favor of Roldán on Europe Day to the efforts of unions to organize refugees who arrive in sanctuary and join the ranks of migrants facing exploitation and division at work, the labor movement has been at the heart of the movement for refugee justice. It has done so by making the case for the dignity of labor, and broadening it into a powerful case for universal dignity and humanity.

In the waters of the Mediterranean, the behavior of advanced economies is reflected back at them. From surveillance machinery to administrative brutality to militarism, pandemic response failure, and a narrow nationalist response to climate crisis, we are seeing the technologies of power which may yet come to define this century for all of us, not just those currently subjected to them. But none of this is inevitable. Currently, twenty-one people face jail for jamming the system. Their fight is a shared fight for a more just and decent world.