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The Mediterranean status quo: European cooperation or sporadic solidarity?


The Mediterranean Sea, with no witnesses. Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash.

‘An NGO ship waits at sea for days for a safe port to be decided with vulnerable people on board.’

‘Rescued persons returned to Libya, in clear violation of International Law. Those on board say they would rather die than be returned.’

‘The European Union needs to remember fundamental values of human dignity and solidarity.’

Think you have read any of these headlines before? Chances are you already have. The situation in the Central Mediterranean resembles less and less a reality governed by coherent European policy and more and more an extract from Groundhog’s Day – albeit with slightly more coastline.

The repetition of these headlines reflects a different kind of rootedness than is often portrayed in discussions surrounding forced migration.


At Sea


Three NGO organisations working in the Mediterranean: Mediterranea, Sea-Watch and Open Arms have formed a coalition called United4Med. This coalition condemns the norm of return to Libya, stating that the country is not safe and does not operate in accordance with International Law.


Since Deputy PM Matteo Salvini closed Italian ports to all NGO vessels not bearing the Italian flag last summer, each decision of a safe port of entry is presented as an unexpected, ad hoc, and an exceptionally compassionate measure.

Recently, NGO ships have stated that rescue has become much easier than disembarking. Boats have been made to wait – without supplies or sufficient space – for up to 19 days before EU member states agreed upon a port of entry.

After rescuing 47 people on January 19th, Sea-Watch immediately released a PR urging for a ‘quick solution according to international law’. Despite these cries and numerous protests, the vessel waited for 13 days before the people on board were finally allowed to be disembarked in Catania. Subsequently, the vessel was blocked in the port under the accusation that they present a ‘threat to the safety of navigation’. There are currently no operational civil search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean.

The return of around 140 people to Libya on Lady Sham on the 21st of January appears to be more of the norm. As often occurs, the people on board were told they were heading to Italy. Any future rescue risks facing the same indecision and posturing between member states, regardless of the condition of those on board or those left in the water. This incident was just one of the most publicised. Over 1,400 people are thought to have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in 2019.

The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) are often similarly unresponsive. These centres should be responsible for responding to distress calls in their search and rescue zones. It was recently found that of the five telephone numbers listed under the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) of the UN for the Libyan MRCC, only one number responded, speaking only Arabic.

In this lack of information-sharing, the few NGO initiatives in air and at sea are vital not only for rescue but also for awareness of the deaths that might otherwise go unreported. Estimates show that more than 6 people a day lost their lives attempting to cross the Central and Western Mediterranean in 2018. 216 deaths have already been recorded in 2019.

In the face of inertia, one of the search and rescue vessels, owned by the German charity Sea-Eye, has just been renamed Alan Kurdi in honour of the Syrian Kurdish toddler who washed up lifeless on Turkish shores in 2015. His death galvanised the European conscience into action. Civil coalitions for rescue hope the name still bears that potency as it plans to resume its role as a witness in the Mediterranean.

Confronted with this situation at sea, Member States shied away from any formal agreements on anything from safe and legal pathways to Europe, responsibility for rescue at sea, sharing of the people arriving, to decisions on safe ports of entry. The one (somewhat hushed up) consensus appears to be return and deterrence, by whatever means necessary – by provision of everything from training to at least four speed boats for the Libyan Coast Guard. These were mildly called ‘international synergies’ by EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos.


In Parliament


In the midst of these scrappy displays of partial responsibility to both rescue and hosting, the European Union is in the process of several negotiations.


After EU Commissioner Avramopoulos called for an end to ‘unorganised ad-hoc solutions’, the EU is pursuing a ‘future-proof’ yet temporary deal for those rescued at sea. This agreement would seek to avoid situations of NGO vessels not being able to dock for days on end.

However, all imminent decisions seem to be subsumed under two encroaching deadlines: the uncertainty surrounding EU Parliamentary Elections in May and the expiration of the mandate of Operation Sophia.


Operation Sophia was extended for 90 days, until the 31st of March. This extension is conditional on future negotiations of the Operation including a provision on places where migrants could be disembarked and a revision of the Dublin Regulation. This revision would aim to share the responsibility for hosting those in need of protection between member states rather than relying on first countries of entry (largely Mediterranean coastal States). Germany, however, has refused to put its boat Ausburg at the disposal of the Operation, stating that, with the Italian navy sabotaging rescue missions, ‘they have not seen a sensible role [of the Operation] for the last six months’.

Despite little being known about the content of discussions, two key issues have emerged about the disembarkation agreement. The first is the inclusion of a fund for return for those with rejected asylum claims to countries. The second is that it would not mention the quotas that have stalled proposed changes to the Dublin Regulation. Quotas would give each Member State a number of people to take in (or disembark in this case), rather than assigning responsibility to the first country of entry. Responsibility for rescue or docking was not mentioned. It remains to be seen how an agreement without quotas would differ from the current status quo of sporadic solidarity.

On the same day Operation Sophia is due to expire, the EU Commission will submit a legislative proposal on Protected Entry Procedures (PEPs) to the EU Parliament. These procedures would permit foreign embassies or consulates to give either national protection to asylum seekers or a visa permitting entry to that particular state for the purpose of claiming protection. This would allow people currently in Lebanon, Turkey or in the very countries of origin to apply for protection without facing dangerous journeys.

Though the feasibility of PEPs was already explored in 2002, this idea has generated nothing short of what Moreno-Lax calls ‘political deadlock’. The motion had a setback in a seminal case at the Court Justice of the European Union that ruled that Member States are not required by EU Law to issue humanitarian visas to asylum-seekers.


In light of this indecision, maybe the truly ‘rooted’ ones are not the ones being discussed in accords or left at sea. Current policy reflects a rootedness to inertia – not to the inseverable link of humans to their place of origin. Global inequality is such that routed people on the move challenge the rooted, comfortable existence of others.

When rootedness can only be attributed to political and financial lethargy, is it not time to be routed in a different direction? As the Mediterranean Groundhog’s Day continues, EU Commissioner Avramopoulos has publicly called on all Member States to show more solidarity, stating that ‘this is a message I will never tire of repeating’. Neither will we. Until a humane decision is reached on PEPs and rescue at sea, we are and are ready to be routed.

Hannah Markay

Hannah completed a M.A. in Social Anthropology and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, with a year abroad in Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. During her MSc. in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, she focused primarily on alternative safe and legal pathways for mobility. After the master’s she interned at Generations For Peace in Jordan and Mediterranean Hope’s Observatory on Migration in Lampedusa, Italy. She is currently working with the humanitarian corridors project in Beirut, Lebanon. She enjoys hiking, anything involving bodies of water, and questioning what it means to be a hospitality-accepting vegetarian.

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