On the night of July 7, 2019, Alessandra Sciurba of the humanitarian rescue organization Mediterranea was aboard a sailboat in Libyan territorial waters. The boat wasn’t meant to save people at sea; she and the crew were just supporting another ship from the German NGO Sea Eye. But suddenly an Alarm Phone alert notified them of a nearby boat in distress, so the crew sailed toward a rapidly deflating dinghy with 59 migrants aboard.
“We got there and found men, women, children, even a 5-month-old baby. Some of them had signs of torture, signs of electrocution with wires. They were all sitting there in this dinghy that didn’t have a hull anymore, it was just a few wooden planks on a black tarp,” recalled Sciurba, who is a researcher in law and human rights at the University of Palermo and has volunteered with Mediterranea since its start in 2018.
As the crew started transferring people from the dinghy to the boat, the Libyan Coast Guard arrived; some of the rescued migrants remarked that they would have rather been thrown into the sea than handed over to the Libyan authorities, says Sciurba. The Libyan Guard ultimately declined to intervene, leaving them at sea with a boat that was too small to carry 59 migrants plus an 11-person crew, had no food, and whose two toilets had broken immediately.
“At that point the EU abandoned us for 50 hours,” she told The Nation. “All we got from them was a written order not to dock in Lampedusa [an island off the coast of Sicily], which was handed over to us from an Italian police patrol boat while we were still outside of Italian territorial waters.”
The Mediterranea crew eventually declared an emergency and the coordination center of the Italian Coast Guard allowed the boat to dock on the island, which sits only a few nautical miles from the borders of the Libyan search-and-rescue area. As soon as everyone disembarked, the boat was sequestered by Italian authorities and the migrants were transferred to mainland reception centers to begin the seemingly interminable process of claiming asylum.
For years, such an episode—marked by peril, confusion, and desperate hopes—has been the norm in Southern Europe. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right Lega party, famously cracked down on immigration; his open war on NGOs in the Mediterranean made life for rescuers like Sciurba so difficult that many rescue organizations ceased to operate. His policies also emboldened the Libyan Coast Guard (a group comprising former militiamen from the UN-backed Libyan government that Italy struck a deal with in 2017) to go after migrants crossing the Mediterranean and bring them back to war-torn Libya, or just let them die. Salvini’s hard-line stance sent ripple effects throughout Europe, embroiling neighboring countries in disputes over who was responsible for welcoming the migrants that Italy was rejecting.
A month and a half after the sailboat rescue, Salvini was ousted. His departure seemed to herald a new era not only in Italy but in Europe at large. French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made public pledges to remove right-wing populist rhetoric from the discourse on immigration. “We must make sure the issue of migration isn’t left to those that use it as a permanent topic for their propaganda,” said Macron during a meeting with Conte in September.
These leaders’ bid to overcome what we could call the “Salvini doctrine” rested on the assumption that European countries would find a long-lasting way to cooperate on the intake of people arriving in Europe via sea—that asylum seekers like the ones Sciurba encountered would no longer be ignored for days on end.
Nearly four months after Salvini’s ouster, that assumption has not been borne out.
In the wake of an inconclusive meeting of interior ministers in Luxembourg—which itself followed another promising but ultimately inconclusive meeting two weeks earlier with representatives of France, Italy, Germany, and Finland on the island of Malta—the question of migrant intake is no closer to being answered.
Participants of the Malta summit proposed a voluntary disembarkation scheme in which governments could offer a port of entry to rescue ships, and migrants would then be relocated within Europe according to quotas. It’s an informal accord that only a handful of European countries seem interested in observing; some of the countries most deeply impacted by the question of migrant intake—namely, Greece and Spain—didn’t even have a seat at the table.
Plus, the plight of those who attempt to cross the central Mediterranean on unsafe vessels still isn’t resolved when they get rescued by humanitarian boats. The provisional, voluntary, nonbinding nature of the Malta accord still makes it possible for rescue ships to be stranded at sea for a long time before a government reacts. In the latest such case, it took 11 days for Italy, France, and Germany to come up with a plan to take in roughly 200 migrants rescued at sea.
The imminent renewal of the 2017 Libya-Italy deal lays bare the difficulty not only of moving away from Salvini’s policies but also of changing the core principles that have shaped European migration policy for the past two years. An explosive report by the Italian daily Avvenire recently revealed that the Italian government in office before the latest 2018 elections negotiated strategies to limit departures of migrants from Libya with a man who turned out to be a ruthless human trafficker. The deal, which could have terminated by November 2, is now set to be renewed as of February 2, 2020, for three more years.
The ethics of pulling migrants back into a country where gross human rights violations are regularly documented is highly questionable—but so is the policy flipside. “Preventing people from leaving Libya doesn’t work, because some keep wanting to leave,” notes Matteo Villa, a research fellow in the migration program at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
Salvini purported to resolve the issue of migrant intake in Southern Europe by declaring Italian harbors closed to them. But he did very little at the institutional level to solve a key exacerbating factor in the migration issue: regulations that weigh disproportionately on Mediterranean countries. Salvini’s call for other European governments to absorb the migrants pushing to enter Italy never resulted in actual policy discussion at the European level. Yet the post-Salvini discussions are failing to move beyond the same old flawed models.
Italy’s new interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, for example, saluted the Malta agreement as “a pathway to revising the common European asylum system.” But this pathway, experts note, builds on previous attempts to reform the Dublin regulation (which requires asylum seekers to be registered and processed in their first EU country of arrival) that were never effective.
“Politicians seem to have difficulty understanding that reform of the Dublin treaty must happen via legal principles that are applicable under all circumstances,” says Leonardo Marino, a lawyer in the Sicilian city of Agrigento who has represented Carola Rackete, the German ship captain arrested for docking a migrant rescue ship in Lampedusa this past June.
In the absence of new strategies and of a concerted effort by European leaders to manage immigration in an effective and humane way, the promise to move away from “Salvinism” is doomed to remain unfulfilled.
“We are left with what has traditionally been the EU’s most fundamental policy,” says Massimo Frigo, a senior lawyer and expert on migration with the International Commission of Jurists. “What this new [Italian] government did was realign itself with the traditional agenda on immigration. It certainly isn’t a pro-immigration government. EU policy on migration hasn’t been an ‘open harbor’ one for almost 20 years now.”
While humanitarian organizations like Mediterranea are still fighting their legal battles to regain access to sequestered ships in the aftermath of Salvini’s tenure, the European Parliament voted down a proposed resolution that would have enjoined member states to keep their ports open to humanitarian ships. Even though the vote wasn’t binding (a decision on rescue operations at sea would need to come from the European Council, after consideration by every member state), it sent a clear signal.
“This is a red flag showing how much Europe is divided about the choice around its ethical-political guiding principles,” says Matteo Villa from ISPI.
The Malta agreement also states that NGOs shouldn’t create a “pull factor” for migration—an idea that’s infected the institutional lingo since at least 2016 and which is based on faulty evidence.
“Even moderate governments trying to reach an agreement and show solidarity with other EU countries need to reckon with the mainstream narration of the past years—that to take action so that people are saved at sea is to create a pull factor for more migrants to come in,” Villa says.
Meanwhile, people continue to die, some a mere few nautical miles from the patch of Italian land closest to Africa.
On October 6, 13 women and eight children drowned right off the coast of Lampedusa as their vessel capsized. The sixth anniversary of one of the island’s most infamous and disturbing milestones—the fiery shipwreck that saw the deaths of over 360 Eritrean, Somalian, and Ghanaian migrants—fell only five days earlier.
The only way out of the deadlock, many analysts and activists maintain, is to open legal pathways for migration into Europe.
“The only way to properly remember those dead people would be to reopen government-backed European rescue missions and open a humanitarian corridor from Libya,” Annalisa Camilli, an Italian journalist and expert on migration, wrote on Facebook.
“Our goal is to never have to go out to sea and save people again,” insists Alessandra Sciurba.
While Salvini’s exceptionally cruel reign may have ended, the underlying facts of the migrant crisis remain effectively unchanged. As Europe picks up where it left off before Salvini, the collective efforts necessary to reform European migration policy still aren’t on the horizon.