In Fortress Europe, Saving Migrants From Drowning Could Land You in Jail

A trial in Italy threatens volunteers who rescued people at sea with up to two decades in jail. The case shows how Fortress Europe is cracking down on even basic, lifesaving solidarity with migrants.

The ten Iuventa crew members charged with facilitating unauthorized entry into Italy. Charges against six of the ten have been dropped. (Paul Lovis Wagner / Iuventa Crew)

On a summer morning in August 2017, Kathrin Schmidt was notified of a distress call. The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) directed her volunteer search-and-rescue ship, the Iuventa, to an incident where two people had been taken aboard a larger coast guard boat. The Iuventa was asked if it could convey the pair to port so that the bigger vessel could continue answering calls.

The two men from Syria were duly taken aboard, where they remained until the Iuventa was instructed to take them to Lampedusa, an island to the south of Sicily. “On the way we were asked to search for another distress case,” recalls Kathrin, the Iuventa’s then head of mission. “It was strange because there was no notification on [official notification system] INMARSAT.”

The ship swept down the oddly large search area it had been assigned, stretching from Lampedusa to almost the edge of Tunisian waters. The MRCC promised helicopter assistance; but hours later, it still hadn’t materialized. Eventually the Iuventa was instructed to break off the search and head for Lampedusa, despite Kathrin having argued for a rendezvous with the coast guard at sea to hand over their two passengers. It was peak crossing season, with the number of deaths so far that year pushing three thousand , and they were eager to return to the search. “Weather indicated a huge number of boats would be likely,” Kathrin recalls:

[The MRCC] started telling us stories about their ships being broken and having engine failures and being engaged in other distress cases that we hadn’t been told about. Then the Coast Guard came in at the same time with four ships that were suddenly available.

The ships escorted the Iuventa into Lampedusa on blue lights. Kathrin’s sense that something was wrong intensified as she saw lines of police waiting on the docks.

As they got closer, cameras started flashing in the dusk. The exhausted crew had sailed into a trap that had been months in the making, involving the far-right then interior minister Matteo Salvini, the wiretapping of journalists and clergy, spying on crews, and finally a highly public ambush — with right-wing reporters invited to watch. The Iuventa was impounded and has not seen open water to this day. The crew were later charged with facilitating unauthorized entry into Italy, the legal corollary of a long political campaign to present rescue workers as disguised people smugglers.

Charges against six of the ten crew have been dropped. But the remaining four — former occupational therapist Kathrin; fuel tanker worker Dariush; Uli, another career seaman and naval reservist; and Sascha, paramedic — saw the first day of court proceedings on May 21. Also caught up in the case are rescue workers from Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children, plus a private shipping firm. The trial may take weeks or years; if convicted, the defendants could face up to two decades behind bars.

Reinventing Sea Rescue

The sharp rise in people seeking safety over the last decade resulted in many human tragedies; the death toll in the Mediterranean almost doubled between 2014 and 2017, with the Syrian civil war a central but hardly sole factor in increasing the numbers attempting crossings. This also presented an unprecedented operational challenge. “We had to reinvent sea rescue,” says Kathrin, who went from having moderate sailing experience to managing complex operations in just a year. “We wrote new standard operating procedures, and we would have to constantly debrief, reflect and improve.” As the emergency wore on, Kathrin went from land-based medical work in Greece to rescue missions in the Aegean Sea until the political environment there became untenable, before arriving in Italy.

In the Central Mediterranean, small boats staffed by unpaid crews battled grim conditions while better-equipped coast guards and navies stood by. The refugee boats Kathrin and her crew encountered would usually have been unseaworthy even if they hadn’t launched overcrowded in often-rough weather. Approaches had to be made with extreme caution to reduce the risk of the target boat capsizing, even in circumstances where every second counted. Sometimes they reached scenes with people already drowning or boats deflating. Kathrin recalls cases of boats with hundreds on board, where people were suffocating on lower decks due to engine gases even as the upper decks were being evacuated. It wasn’t possible to turn off the engines, which also powered bilge pumps that prevented the lower decks filling with water.

“So you have shitty boats full of huge numbers of people who have often endured months if not years of abuse, torture, imprisonment, or slavery,” Kathrin sums up grimly. “Not seldom did we find people barely alive, close to starvation, with shot wounds and open fractures. Absolutely none of those factors would be present in a normal sea-rescue operation.” Once people were aboard, the Iuventa’s multidisciplinary crew would handle crowd control and mediation, medical support and other basic needs, documenting incidents, and liaising with authorities, while continuing to operate the ship’s systems.

During these months the Iuventa and other volunteer crews won the respect and trust of the Italian Navy, coast guard, and MRCC, under whose instructions they had to work closely. But meanwhile the hard right regrouped across Europe, in part through leading an anti-refugee backlash. As political winds changed, operational relationships deteriorated. Kathrin recalls that the handovers of refugees would no longer be managed logically:

They would insist on leaving us with thirty people on board, for example, and forcing us to go all the way to, say, Lampedusa to disembark. . . . We realized during the confiscation of the ship that those incidents had the purpose of bugging the boat’s bridge.

European Law

Francesca Cancellaro, a lawyer for the Iuventa crew, says this is the biggest-ever investigation against rescue NGOs, with a record number of defendants. Prosecutors argue that people were not rescued by the crew but were the subject of “agreed handovers” between smugglers and NGOs. “This is not true,” says Cancellaro. “The Iuventa crew was involved in rescue operations with their conduct subject to the duty to rescue arising from the law of the sea.”

Cancellaro says many relevant elements went unconsidered. She cites the Forensic Architecture report comprehensively demonstrating errors in the prosecutors’ file. Images and spatial reconstruction contradict claims that the Iuventa crew returned boats to smugglers after bringing people aboard in two separate incidents, and audio recordings contradict claims of the crew engaging in dialogue with smugglers in a third. “Second,” she adds, “the relevant case law and the principles recently ruled by the Italian Cassation Court were not considered.” This court has ruled on justifications in two other search-and-rescue cases.

Search-and-rescue crews would have been targeted under any circumstances. But they became a particular target for the Right in part because they insisted that their own work could never be enough. Organizations like Jugend Rettet, which operated the Iuventa, and Sea Watch have combined practical work with a searing critique of the Global North’s border policies. They have insisted the problem wasn’t just insufficient resources to save lives at sea — but the fact people felt compelled to make potentially lethal journeys in the first place.

“Sea rescue is not the solution,” says Kathrin. “The only solution would be safe and legal means to travel for people who have to seek protection. The criminalization of our solidarity is only a tool to criminalize migration itself.” The organized lawfare has been swift and vicious. Between 2015 and 2019, around 250 people in fourteen European countries were charged with offenses relating to migrant solidarity. Past anti-Mafia operations were retooled to target humanitarians as racketeers. Similarly, in the United States, legislation drafted for organized crime was deployed to drag people through the courts for leaving bottles of water out for people crossing the Arizona desert.

Under a similar but even harsher rubric, refugees themselves were targeted in the name of fighting trafficking. In one year, 1,905 people were imprisoned in Greece for “facilitating illegal entry.” The average trial lasted around thirty minutes. This included Amir Zahiri and Akif Razuli, two Afghan refugees whose dinghy was punctured by Greek coast guard officers, who later took them on board, beat them, and tried them as smugglers. Hanad Abdi Mohammad, a refugee who saved thirty-one people at sea, was handed a 142-year sentence for related offenses. After losing his son and nearly drowning, twenty-five-year-old “N” and another passenger were arrested — although they were recently acquitted.

Cancellaro staunchly maintains the Iuventa crew’s innocence on the specific charges. But she adds that the Italian criminal law on facilitating unauthorized entry is unreasonably broad, given that it is not confined to those pursuing financial gain. Clare Daly MEP, who sits on the European Union civil liberties committee LIBE, points out that in spite of nationally specific histories such as Mafia prosecutions, this is about more than national law: “These practices stem from EU anti-smuggling and anti-terrorism laws that have been criticized for creating legal ambiguity and discrepancies in their transposition into domestic law, contributing to the violation of human rights of people seeking asylum.”

Alison West, a legal monitor with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), agrees:

EU institutions and actors like Frontex also play key roles in creating the broader environment in which criminalization is occurring. Frontex has fueled a toxic narrative of blaming civil sea rescuers for high death rates . . . and accusing them of constituting a “pull factor” for smugglers. This false and dangerous claim has been thoroughly debunked by groups like Forensic Oceanography but unfortunately remains a prevalent narrative in public discourse. Such smearing of civil sea rescuers functions alongside legal criminalization in a broader effort by EU and state authorities to shrink civic space for vital lifesaving action and solidarity with people on the move.


Attacks on rescue crews have partially backfired — and appear to be somewhat abating. In Britain, right-wing broadsides against the Royal National Lifeboat Institution prompted an outpouring of donations. Seafarers’ union Nautilus successfully lobbied the government against including potential search-and-rescue restrictions in its Borders Bill. Recently, Britain dropped plans for pushbacks altogether, following a legal challenge by monitoring group Channel Rescue among others. Arrested rescue captains have won numerous plaudits — even if they have often declined awards. And investigations are also costly.

“If you think about the wiretapping, the agents, the translators . . . it’s huge and expensive,” says Chloe Haralambous, a graduate student and search-and-rescue coordinator:

And the investigations haven’t had very important results, so they’ve been embarrassing. Around 2019, they figured out that it’s more effective to just impose administrative rather than criminal sanctions. They could hold NGO ships in port for months for absurd reasons such as having too many life jackets on board. It served the same function of keeping the civil fleet away from the rescue zone but at pretty much no cost to the state.

Meanwhile, the EU-Libya deal has overseen an ever-more effective system of “pull-back” operations, returning people to the horrors of the Libyan detention system before they reach open water. A Libyan state unable to exercise a monopoly on violence within its own borders nonetheless operates a brutally efficient seaborne force — one armed, trained, and organized by Europe. “There used to be a bad joke that the Libyan coast guard was its only functioning public institution,” adds Chloe. “And the point is the skill sets, the know-how, were all provided by Europe.”

Open attacks on rescue crews have also been emblematic of the brash pugilistic style of figures like Salvini and Donald Trump. Chloe describes la bestia, the name given to Salvini’s aggressive social-media machine, and how far-right forces worked carefully to develop and disseminate the narrative presenting NGOs as a taxi service for immigrants. The heat of this rhetoric has faded somewhat as right-populists have faced electoral setbacks.

Yet change resulting from these defeats has been more cosmetic than political. Fox News loudly accuses the Joe Biden administration of pushing for open borders — though he has refused calls to drop the Trump-era COVID restrictions created to suspend basic movement rights. In Europe, it’s little different. “We think of the central conflict as being between Right and Left,” says Chloe,

and as long as the Right loudly set the agenda, that was plausible. But really, there was a conflict between the parliamentary so-called left and the NGOs. The center-left needed to appear a voice of liberal reason against right-wing demagogues, and that meant monopolizing humanitarian ideals. But then they have the NGOs they’ve outsourced humanitarian action to calling them out. It’s an attack on the identity of the liberal establishment itself, and that’s one reason the NGOs were treated so ferociously.

She adds that in Italy the first criminal cases predated Salvini, having been undertaken by the center-left.

“A Security Force, Not a Welcoming Committee”

In the neighboring Aegean Sea, European institutions are far more directly involved in managing the situation. Frans Timmermans, the unsuccessful center-left candidate for the European Commission presidency, spent much of the 2010s working with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on a Libya-style migrant-returns deal. But Turkey is a less reliable enforcer than Libya, arguably because a more secure state and indeed a regional power has more latitude to make demands. In March 2020, Turkey refused to police its borders with the efficiency demanded by Europe, and Greece responded by suspending the right to seek asylum while its forces shot people on the border. Greece, too, has been treated by Brussels as a peripheral enforcer, having been threatened with the closure of its own EU land borders if it failed to control movement.

“The EU claims to be horrified at what Greece is doing,” Chloe says:

But Europe has traditionally relied on bankrolling neighboring states to do the dirty work that keeps Fortress Europe standing. So, we’re seeing the exacerbation of contradictions on which European values have been nominally maintained. And this reflects a broader loss of identity of the European liberal establishment. It needs the language of values to distinguish it from the Right. It’s not distinguishing itself in terms of social welfare. So, “human rights” are doing a lot of work . . . but not for refugees.

Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s migration minister, recently slammed Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri with the claim that “every boat” crossing the Aegean was a violation of the EU-Turkey deal and that Frontex needed to remember that it is a “security force, not a welcoming committee.” Perhaps Mitarachi should have read the investigation emerging that same week, which charged Frontex with complicity in hundreds of cases euphemistically labelled “prevention of departure,” including those in which people were removed from their dinghies, put onto rafts, and pushed out to drift. This and other exposés resulted in Leggeri’s resignation — but little likely change in policy terms. The agency’s budget is skyrocketing by billions. Accelerated European rearmament following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is further intensifying border militarization. And with increasing displacement, climate fears, and geopolitical disputes come ever more walls, weapons, and outsourced violence.

ECCHR’s Alison West argues that the law can and should be used to fight the criminalization of migration rather than uphold it: “Because it has proven unlikely to date that state and EU authorities will adequately investigate and hold their own institutions and leaders to account in this regard, there are strong reasons to turn to regional and international fora for accountability.” In 2021, ECCHR and partners submitted a communication to the International Criminal Court citing crimes against humanity perpetrated against migrants and refugees in Libya. “As a next step,” West adds, “we are now examining ways in which European institutions and actors may be complicit in such crimes.”

Impossible Fortress

West, along with the crew and their lawyers as well as activists and supporters, gather in Palermo the night before the trial begins. There’s a solidarity event in Arci Porco Rosso, a space run by local leftists and anti-fascists. On another evening, Palermo’s Senegalese community center looks after this sudden influx of foreigners. If nothing else, this case has brought together a range of people across borders and backgrounds, with an equally diverse range of approaches to resisting the rising border violence.

The morning of the trial, we board a hired coach for Trapani. It feeels incongruously like a tourist excursion, with the coach hurtling along a vertiginous coastal road where lush green hills rise to pale purple mountains under a white moon in morning haze, with the sea sparkling on the horizon. The activists disembark onto the waterfront under the watchful eye of carabinieri (Italian police), while a cutter from the Guardia di Finanza patrols the dockside. Banners go up. We are banned from such displays of solidarity outside the court, yet some kind of show is expected.

Instead, the mood is subdued. Kathrin Schmidt is too honest for tub-thumping:

I don’t see things improving. I don’t see things getting better; I’m too much of a realist for that. Things have gotten considerably worse over the last seven years. But then I continue doing this job, being an activist and dedicating my life to it. So in some regard, I must be optimistic.

What’s it like to have your life on hold for years for a trial like this? “It’s a hard question to answer. We are probably all asking ourselves, was it worth it?” Kathrin’s voice gets more certain. “Yes, it was worth it. Yes, we would do it again. No, we don’t regret one single minute on the ship. We know we’re on the right side.”

The Trapani courthouse is a squat cubic building with the Italian and European flags drooping over the entrance. Just behind it sits il Bastione dell’Impossibile, the old city wall. It is a remarkable feat of military engineering, getting its name from the marshy and inhospitable ground its parapets were raised out of. But search-and-rescue volunteers being tried in the name of Fortress Europe, in the shadow of a giant wall named “the impossible fortress,” feels a bit on the nose.

But today, the impossible fortress is no more. There is an elevator to its summit, where a pleasant veranda provides a view of the boats coming and going in the port, including another volunteer search-and-rescue vessel still defiantly moored here. A light summer breeze breaks the still heat. There are sprays of summer flowers bursting out of the ruins of the ramparts — now just a monument to past violence, a crumbled relic that has long outlasted its purpose. Perhaps one day, the fortresses of our own time will join it.