A Wall Worse than Trump's European Policies Create New Dangers on Mediterranean

In just a few years, the dreams of European immigration hardliners have become reality on the Mediterranean. Volunteer sea rescue operations have been shut down, and the route across the sea is more dangerous than ever.

 The rescue ship Aquarius arrives in Malta.
Nicolo Lanfranchi/ laif

The rescue ship Aquarius arrives in Malta.

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It was just before midnight when Fabian Heinz lost his faith in Europe. The Alan Kurdi, a ship belonging to Sea Eye, a German sea-rescue organization, was bobbing up and down between Lampedusa, in Italy, and Malta. Heinz, a 29-year-old photographer from Würzburg, remembers holding watch on deck that evening.

He looked up from his post to the dozens of refugees that he and other rescuers had saved from the sea near the Libyan coast. They were sleeping as well as they could, lying crisscrossed on the overfilled deck, wet from the spray of the waves. The Alan Kurdi had been sailing on the Mediterranean for two days at this point, but no country wanted to let the ship dock. Malta had forbidden the crew from making land. Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had suggested the boat go to Hamburg. Supplies on board were running low, and there could soon be medical emergencies.

"I was prepared for all of that," says Heinz. But in that moment, he felt incredibly lonely. "I had the feeling that nobody cared whether we just drifted out here. This kind of thing shouldn't be happening here in Europe." When Malta's coast guard ultimately brought the migrants on board days later, two women had already collapsed. Even without refugees, the crew of the Alan Kurdi wasn't allowed on land. The helpers had to head south. Thirteen days after saving 64 people, they were allowed to disembark -- in Tunis.

For refugees, Europe is increasingly becoming a fortress without a gate. Even volunteer maritime rescuers are now being criminalized. Ports are closed to them. Ships are confiscated. Helpers are put on trial. Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch was just sentenced to pay 10,000 euros by a Maltese court because his ship hadn't been properly registered. The Italian Public Prosecutor's Office is accusing 10 volunteers from the vessel Iuventa of illegal immigration. The crew could face up to 20 years in prison.

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With their blockade policy, the Europeans have decimated the flotilla of private maritime rescuers, which at one point included as many as 12 ships. Now, on many days, not a single rescue ship can be found patrolling the waters between Europe and North Africa.

The EU completely ceased maritime rescues in the fall. It merely monitors the sea from the air and cooperates with the Libyan coast guard, which has expanded its search zone since 2017. The Libyan ships capture refugees near their own coast and bring them back to the country, which is in the midst of a civil war. They place them in camps, where many are tortured, raped or, in some cases, forced to become soldiers.

The EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees protection to people who are fleeing from war or political persecution. But the EU member states have, in practical terms, eliminated it. They have sealed their borders, expelled refugee helpers and erected fences. They pay autocrats like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prevent migrants from continuing their journey.

Fortress Europe has many architects: Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (left) using binoculars next to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban from a watch tower along the fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border.
Balazs Szecsodi/ AFP

Fortress Europe has many architects: Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (left) using binoculars next to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban from a watch tower along the fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border.

The result being that, even in the warmer months between May and October, few refugees now make it to Europe. This year, only 24,000 migrants have succeeded in crossing the Mediterranean to the EU so far. The number hasn't been that low in years.

More Dangerous than Ever

The long journey to Europe is more dangerous than ever. A study by the Italian think tank Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), based on Interior Ministry figures, shows that one in eight refugees who set out from Libya for Italy in the first four months of 2019 died. The International Organization for Migration found that one in 17 refugees on the route perished, up from one death out of every 43 in 2016. On June 3, a group of human rights lawyers lodged a complaint against the EU at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It argues that, through its policies, the European Union is responsible for "the deaths by drowning of thousands of migrants."


When several hundred refugees drowned in a shipwreck near Lampedusa in 2013, it still triggered outrage among European leaders and prompted the EU to invest in rescue programs. But now the EU member states are willing to accept the disasters as collateral damage. Many Europeans are outraged about the wall U.S. President Donald Trump wants to build at the border to Mexico, even as they are sealing themselves off from immigration in ways that are even more brutal than what the Americans are doing. On Thursday and Friday of this week, EU leaders will meet at a summit in Brussels where they will determine their policy agenda through 2024. It is unlikely that the EU is going to undertake any kind of fundamental course correction. In terms of EU asylum policy, the desire to keep migrants far away -- no matter how -- has been the imperative for some time now.

"Fortress Europe" has many architects, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, left-wing Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras and former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who all implemented policies aimed at keeping migrants out. But none is pursuing them as decisively as Matteo Salvini. Italy's right-wing populist interior minister has ensured that his country ceases maritime rescues. He has also disparaged foreign helpers, claiming they are collaborating with the human traffickers and harassing them with investigations until many give up and retreat. He eventually had Italian ports bar maritime rescuers. Anyone now seeking to rescue refugees must first find a country willing to take them in.

Through his policy of sealing Italy off, Salvini has managed something that, until a few years ago, not even Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party would have dared suggest: The Europeans are allowing migrants to drown in the Mediterranean.

For the migrants who do make it to Italy, it doesn't take long until they are destitute again. The government coalition comprised of Salvini's right-wing populist Lega Nord and the M5S protest party passed a law this autumn, the so-called Salvini Decree, that could render the status of an additional 130,000 immigrants illegal by the end of 2020. Salvini recently eliminated the "humanitarian protection" which allowed many asylum applicants to work legally, at least temporarily. This has already created a situation in which thousands of men and women are now sleeping on the streets. Their numbers are only likely to grow.

Mamadou Kondé, a 26-year-old shepherd from Senegal, has been sleeping on a park bench in Rome since February. He feeds himself with food distributed by volunteers. On one afternoon in May, that meant left-over pizza rolls. Kondé isn't his real name. He's afraid of being quoted and photographed using his real name. "We don't know what is still coming our way," he says.

As a refugee with humanitarian protection status, Kondé had been housed at a first-stage reception center in Rome until this past fall. The Salvini Decree resulted in his expulsion from the center. He no longer knows where to go now. "Without an apartment, I have no right to stay," Kondé says, summarizing his dilemma, "without a right to stay, no job. Without a job, no apartment." He says he'd like to return to Senegal, but doesn't have enough money, and that his passport got stolen.

Salvini describes his law as a "present to the Italians." But Marìka Surace, a lawyer with the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD), a network of Italian NGOs, argues that the Salvini Decree is leading to neglect and violence. "It has destroyed the old system without replacing it with a new one," she says. Many mayors are refusing to implement the decree out of fear of social unrest. The UN views it as a violation of international law.

Blockaded Routes

The EU, for its part, has failed to create the kind of system for fairly distributing refugees among the member states that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly called for. Instead, a competition has emerged in Europe that sees countries trying to outdo each other in undermining asylum standards to keep the migrants out. In Eastern Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been pursuing the same deterrence policies recently introduced by Salvini in Italy for years now -- with at least the same severity.

The border between Hungary and Serbia has been sealed for some time now. Refugees coming from the south run up against a bulwark made of two fences, barbed wire and thermal imaging cameras that is monitored around the clock by police officers.


The Orbán government has decided to allow only two refugees into the country each day, a mockery of European asylum law. The migrants are sent to a hearing with border guards who decide, in an expedited proceeding, who has a chance of getting asylum. Those who aren't sent back to a Balkan state after their first assessment, spend the duration of their asylum proceedings in one of two reception camps that are euphemistically called "transit zones," although they're really just jails.

Under EU law, rejected asylum applicants have the legal right to appeal that decision, but Orbán has also effectively lifted that procedure. The Hungarian authorities often harass rejected asylum applicants by withholding food. And NGOs that work to assert the rights of migrants in Hungary are slapped with a special tax. "Orbán's policies are entirely centered on the repulsion of refugees, no matter how much danger they are in," says Hungarian human rights activist Márta Pardavi.

The prime minister has made the fight against migration the focus of his governance. It hasn't hurt him either. His Fidesz party is still a member of the European People's Party -- the grouping of conservatives in the European Parliament that also includes Merkel's Christian Democrats -- even if its membership is currently suspended until further notice due to its attacks on European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

A bag containing the body of a migrant who died off the Libyan coast is seen in Qarabulli town, located east of the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Ayman al-Sahili/ REUTERS

A bag containing the body of a migrant who died off the Libyan coast is seen in Qarabulli town, located east of the Libyan capital Tripoli.

The isolationist policies pursued by Orbán and Salvini have caused a noticeable decrease in migration numbers, but it has not entirely erased them. They may even perpetuate migration. To secure the borders, the Europeans are providing indirect support to militias in Libya and Sudan that are themselves involved in human trafficking and are contributing to their countries' collapse. In Egypt, they continue to back a brutal regime that is muzzling the country of 98 million inhabitants, and, according to experts, endangering its long-term stability. The result being that many migrants are taking new and often more dangerous routes.

The Spanish Solution

At the southern tip of Europe, Manuel Barroso is standing in his command center. The port of Almería, a coastal city in the Andalusia region of southern Spain, stretches out below him. Outside the windows, blue sky meets blue sea. Barroso allows his hands to glide over the map on the table in the center of the room, when an alarm pulls the head of the maritime rescue out of his thoughts. Forty-seven people are reportedly on the Alboran Sea in a boat traveling from Morocco to Spain. Barroso whirls around, giving instructions.

Since the routes through the Balkans and Italy to Northern Europe have largely been blocked, Spain has become one of the main destinations for refugees. Last year, close to 60,000 people attempted to make the crossing from Morocco, more than ever before.

Spain had long provided an impressive example of how well a country can monitor the area between North Africa and Europe. Pedro Sanchez' Socialist government repeatedly allowed private maritime rescue ships to dock at its ports. When Salvini turned away his first ship carrying migrants, the Aquarius, Sanchez opened the port of Valencia to it. Initially, his government acted as the antithesis of Italy under Salvini.

…But even the Socialists are struggling to maintain their liberal refugee policy. As long as the EU doesn't agree on a joint asylum system, the countries on the Mediterranean will largely be left to their own devices.

Since early this year, the maxim in Spain has been to save people, but not so many. The Spanish daily El País recently reported that illegal immigration via the Mediterranean is to be reduced by half this year. Like other EU countries, Spain is increasingly reliant on third countries to do its dirty work for it on migration. Spain's King Felipe VI and his interior minister traveled to Morocco in mid-February to get the Moroccan coast guard to act more vigorously in deterring refugees. The EU has pledged the country 148 million euros for the purpose, of which 30 million has already been paid. The outcome being that Moroccan officials claim the country has already caught and returned 30,000 refugees.

In the port of Almería, the results of this shift are already visible. When the alarm goes off in the tower, Spain first sends just an airplane to determine where the refugees are located. Spica, a rescue ship, remains in the port for the time being.

Ismael Furió stands next to the ship and complains about the situation. The captain is a member of the left-wing CGT union and is responsible for the maritime rescue workers there. He'd like to help himself, but he isn't allowed to. "It's the new strategy," he says. "Procrastinating and then waiting for the Moroccan coast guard to find the boat and bring it back." The decisions in the newly installed command center are now being made by Félix Blázquez, a general in the Guardia Civil, the Spanish military police. Military police officers were also stationed on board several ships. Many maritime rescuers are critical of the decision, because they consider the refugees to be castaways, not immigrants -- and they don't view themselves as border guards.

These measures show the degree to which even Spain has now shifted toward deterrence. In December, the far-right Vox party garnered almost 11 percent of votes in regional elections in Andalusia and a similar share during the national parliamentary election in April.

Since then, the rescuers have been under constant attack. So far, 166 people have died in the Mediterranean this year in the waters between Spain and Morocco. Union member Furió worries that number could rise significantly in the summer. "If the Moroccans were to fail to rescue just one in four ships, thousands could drown," he says. And he points out that the Moroccan coast guard doesn't always report rescues faithfully.

Miguel Zea, Barroso's predecessor in the Almería control center, has similar concerns. He was replaced by the current minister in February, a change that came at Zea's request. Other rescuers say Zea said he didn't want to continue under these conditions -- otherwise, he wouldn't be able to look at himself in the mirror in the mornings.

European politicians claim the refugee crisis has passed. Helpers like Barroso, however, can see each day that this isn't true. For now, the crisis has moved to the periphery of the Continent and beyond. But as long as the EU member states don't succeed in creating a fair asylum system or set up dignified reception camps outside the EU, the crisis could return to the heart of the Continent at any time.

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