Friday the 18th of December marked International Migrant Day, which aims to raise awareness about the challenges and difficulties of international migration. Vicki Prais discusses the work of humanitarian rescue boats and why the EU must adopt better policies that protect every single life. 

The image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish origin, lying lifeless on a beach  near Bodrum  in September 2015 will be forever etched in our memory as a stain on humanity.  For Alan and his family, Europe represented a safe haven away from a war ravaged Syria.  Sadly, the dream unravelled that September day in 2015.

The Mediterranean has become a graveyard to many people, young and old, who try to cross the sea in search of safety and sanctuary. It is one of the deadliest migration routes in the world which has, according to the International Organisation for Migration, claimed the lives of 1,054 people this year alone. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded 83, 079 sea arrivals this year.

More often than not, an asylum seeker's route to Europe starts on the Libyan coast. Whilst in Libya, asylum seekers face dangerous conditions including arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment and rape before they make the dangerous journey at sea. Traffickers pack asylum seekers onto unseaworthy boats with anything from 20-70 persons onboard; a life jacket invariably costs more so many are left to face the stormy seas with little or no protection at all.

The increased securitisation of borders and a steel perimeter around Europe has extended to the Franco-British border with a slow but steady stream of sea arrivals to British shores. Sadly, these individuals have received a frosty reception from the UK authorities which is doing its best to make these routes 'unviable'.  The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has made her position abundantly clear: "The number of illegal small boat crossings is appalling. We are working to make this route unviable and arresting the criminals facilitating these crossings and making sure they are brought to justice."

The iconic White Cliffs of Dover no longer have bluebirds flying over them but have become a political flashpoint.

The unsung heroes of the hours are, without doubt, humanitarian ships such as the Ocean Viking, Open Arms, and Sea-Watch who make it their mission to undertake search and rescue operations to save lives at sea.  Their work is unyielding and unforgiving. SOS Mediterranée, a European humanitarian  and maritime organisation which operates the Ocean Viking, has undertaken 271 operations and assisted some 31,799 people since starting operations in the central Mediterranean in 2016.  A full team including a doctor, nurse, midwife and rescuers are on board to help those pulled from the sea.  They undertake their work in full compliance with international maritime law principles.

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Yet the vitally important and urgent work of these ships is being hampered.  In July 2020, the Ocean Viking was impounded at port in Italy on the grounds of technical irregularities and only released in mid-December 2020. The organisation also faced an 11 day stand-off with the Italian maritime authorities when seeking to disembark survivors to a dedicated Place of Safety as per maritime regulations.  It is politics playing with lives.

Non-assistance to survivors at sea is not an option.  The duty to save lives at sea is not only a moral but a legal obligation under both international maritime and international human rights law.   The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) clearly sets out the duty on shipmasters to render assistance to people in distress at sea without delay. Further, under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (1974), the obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of nationality, status or circumstances. It matters not that those rescued are asylum seekers. Life is life. Coastal authorities are also under a duty to provide search and rescue services.  Rescuees should be treated with humanity on board the ship and their immediate needs met as per International Maritime Organisation regulations.  Under human rights law, states are under a duty to provide fundamental human rights and to ensure there is no loss of life.

Yet states are sailing close to the wind in terms of their international human rights commitments.  There are serious and credible allegations of pushbacks by Greek authorities and attempts to return migrants to Turkey.  According to one report from a rescuee,  "They dressed up like ninja[s], they want to make us get on a boat and send us back to Turkey."

According to the NGO, Aegean Boat Report, the Greek authorities have carried out close to 300 pushbacks since the start of 2020.

Whilst there are no quick fixes to this issue, the EU's decision to outsource border responsibilities to Libya including training and funding of coast guards falls short on many counts.  The Libyan coastguard's human rights record is highly questionable; according to Human Rights Watch "European Union (EU) migration cooperation with Libya is contributing to a cycle of extreme abuse".

We should not forget that each and every soul under the sea has a personal story, a narrative, a life well lived with hopes and desires.  The EU needs to adopt policies that are not only coordinated but are human rights-centred at heart. It shouldn't fall to civil society and humanitarian efforts alone to manage this issue.  The Ocean Viking can only do so much on its own.

The author wishes to thank Elliot Guy at SOS Mediteranée for his assistance with this article.

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