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Stuck ships, prosecuted captains: How Europe imposes immobility

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By imposing immobility on rescue ships, EU member states deliberately put people at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.

Just a few days ago, the rescue ship Alan Kurdi saved more than 60 people off the Libyan coast. The ship – which was named after the Syrian boy who drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 – is now paradoxically denied to dock in Italy or Malta. The vessel is run by the German charity Sea-Eye. The members of the crew have been stuck on sea for days now.

Germany agreed to take in some of the refugees but the German Minister of the Interior Seehofer said that other European Union members should offer hospitality as well. Like so often before, the EU is facing a stalemate situation in which maritime law is presented as the stumbling block. On the grounds of legal details, EU states refuse to let rescue ships enter their ports. However, what stands behind these debates is the unwillingness to take responsibility.


Last June, this unwillingness culminated in an incident that is hard to compete with in its absurdity. It is connected to the story of Claus-Peter Reisch. He was the captain of the rescue ship Lifeline and, on one occasion, saved lives of 234 refugees off the Libyan coast. Similar to the current events, those who had just escaped the waves were stuck on the ship for several days as neither Malta nor Italy were willing to allow the ship to dock. Finally, Malta allowed the ship to anchor. Upon arrival, Captain Reisch was arrested by the Maltese police as the authorities opened a legal case against him for breaching international law. Malta accused him of entering its waters without proper registration. Reisch insists that the ship went out under a Dutch flag and was correctly registered in Amsterdam as its home port. After the first hearing, Reisch was released on bail - 10,000 euros. Although the German embassy was present for the hearings so far, Reisch said that he felt no particular support from the German government. He urged the authorities to initiate a sea rescue mission under the command of the German state, which has not been implemented so far.

Reisch argued that his ‘mission was to save 234 people’ and that he was ‘not aware of having committed any crime’. More so, he criticised the EU for such harsh actions against civil sea rescue missions asking, ‘What kind of a world is it in which people work harder against rescue missions than against people’s death?’. As of April 2019, the trial is still ongoing with the judgement scheduled for 19 May 2019.


Captain Reisch’s story shows a sad reality: through continuing disputes over maritime law Europe keeps migrants stuck at sea. Captains that put their own lives in danger to save others have to fear legal consequences instead of being honoured for their service. EU member states need to seriously rethink their actions. By imposing immobility on rescue ships, they deliberately put people at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.


Yet, all clouds have silver linings. Under the hashtag #sea-bridge, thousands of people took to the streets of Hamburg to protest for sea rescue in the Mediterranean in the weeks following the arrest of Claus-Peter Reisch. In reaction to the ongoing problem, more than 200 members of the German parliament formed an alliance to protect migrants at sea. They demand a broader understanding that civil sea rescue is necessary, a coalition at the European level to accept those saved at sea, more support from the Ministry of Interior for communities who welcome refugees, and the liberation of all refugees that are kept in Libyan camps.


These are examples for the first steps back on track. They show that we do care and have not completely forgotten our humanity. But currently there is only one civil rescue ship left - the Alan Kurdi. So we need to move ahead faster.

Rebekka Fiedler

Rebekka Fiedler recently graduated from the MSc in Migration Studies at Oxford University. She is now based in the UK, but she comes from a small town in Eastern Germany. The summer of 2015, the peak of the ‘migration crisis’, left her with many questions, of which most remained unanswered by mainstream media. She is interested in the nuances of who is understood to be a migrant will be integrated into society. In her dissertation, she examined the political production of the German Integration Act. It is in her heart to connect academic and everyday conversations around human mobility.

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