Enable javascript to see the website
February 28, 2024

You can't let people die at sea: why we must talk about the right to travel

Insight by Michela Grasso

It is inconceivable, to say the least, but in Italy, those who save lives go on trial. On the 30th of December 2023, the Ocean Viking vessel, belonging to the humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee, was forced into administrative detention for twenty days in the port of Bari and was forced to pay a fine of 3,300 euros. The accusation? Not having respected the directives dictated by the Piantedosi Decree, by deviating the ship's route by 15 nautical miles from the one imposed, to save the lives of 70 people in danger of shipwreck. Since the 2nd of January 2023, the date of introduction of the Decree, civil ships involved in rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean are obliged to disembark in assigned ports, often distant and inconvenient to reach, without the possibility of diversions.

«Saving human lives can never be a crime, we are convinced of operating according to international conventions», says Denny Castiglione, 32 years old, activist of Mediterranea Saving Humans, a humanitarian organization founded in 2018 from the initiative of a multitude of people who chose not to remain indifferent to the suffering of thousands of people. «It's a matter of humanity: you don't let people die at sea. The decrees imposed by the new government tend to discourage the civil fleet from continuing missions in the central Mediterranean, but we are not giving up. Just as we don't give up on carrying the Italian flag on our ship, the only one in the civil fleet. It is first of all a political challenge that we do not want to shy away from». Today Mediterranea Savings Humans has more than 3,700 people and operates in 40 territories around the world both at sea and on land

2023 was a year of numerous departures in the Mediterranean; more than 155 thousand people, mainly from Tunisia or Libya, have reached the Italian coasts. With a total of dead and missing that exceeds 2500, which adds up to more than 28 thousand migrants dead or missing in the previous ten years. An increase in arrivals compared to previous years: 2022 saw 103 thousand people disembarked, and 2021, 67,040. «In recent years we have suffered several administrative detentions, investigations, seizures, and discriminatory campaigns», explains Castiglione to Voice Over Foundation, while he is busy in Ukraine coordinating a health project in the Lviv Oblast for Mediterranea Saving Humans. «Recently, the Mare Jonio ship was detained and fined for failing to coordinate with the Libyan authorities during a rescue. It's surreal. We are accused of not having asked the Libyan coast guard, the torturers of those we saved, for a port to bring these people back to, as if they were objects, as if the tortures suffered in Libya did not matter. Not to mention the ridiculousness of assigning ports hundreds of miles from rescue sites, a political action designed to discourage organizations like ours, inflicting further suffering on those being rescued. This is pure cruelty».

 The legal situation regarding rescues in the Mediterranean seems to change and become more complicated with each new government, and amid these changes, there is one constant that remains unchanged: the horrors that migrants flee from when they leave behind the shores of Libya and Tunisia. In past years, various institutions, including the UN, have denounced the human rights violations committed in Libya, from the violence of the Coast Guard to the inhuman conditions in which migrants are detained, kidnapped, and tortured. Although the situation is well known, the collaboration between the European institutions and the Libyan government to bring migrant people back to Libya has been ongoing since 2016 and was reconfirmed in 2023. Giorgia Linardi, 34 years old, has worked for Sea Watch since 2015, today she is the spokesperson for the non-governmental organization and tells Voice Over Foundation what the reasons for the collaboration between the European Union and the Libyan Coast Guard are. «The European Union, with its policies, is trying to build a wall in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent migrants from coming into contact with European ships and people. Why does this happen? In 2012, the European Court in Strasbourg condemned Italy for the forced return of migrants to Libya. In that period, ships of the Italian Navy brought back to Libya the people rescued at sea, violating the right to non refoulement: if you are fleeing and there is a risk to your life in the place where you are fleeing from, then there is an absolute ban on being sent back. The European Union wants to avoid being condemned, so it supports and arms the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea. We, as an NGO, extend our arm to those who flee, a gesture that breaks European policies, creates contact, and prevents these people from being sent back to Libya».

In recent years, tens of thousands of migrants have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, to which Europe provides huge amounts of economic and military aid. According to Human Rights Watch, from 2017 to today, the EU "has allocated 57.2 million euros for integrated border and migration management in Libya". In addition, in past years, both the European Union and Italy have handed over dozens of ships to the Libyan coast guard for the interception of migrants. Linardi explains: «Those who are caught by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken back to detention centers, from which they will then try to escape again, ending up once again in a circle of abuse. The European Union, by entrusting responsibility for migrant recovery operations to Libya, contributes to the enrichment of traffickers, and does not propose any solution from a political point of view to stop the massacre underway in the Mediterranean». In recent years, various faces in Italian politics, first and foremost Matteo Salvini, have pointed the finger at NGOs, accusing them of encouraging migration with their presence at sea. Yet, an analysis of migratory flows published in 2023 highlights how there is no correlation between the presence of NGOs in the Mediterranean and the increase in migratory flows. In recent years, restrictions on NGOs have increased, but this has not stopped tens of thousands of people from undertaking the journey. 

This highlights how vital the presence of humanitarian rescue ships is in the Mediterranean. But above all, this demonstrates the need to bring the concept of the "right to travel" to the center of public debate. Why can't those who have a Syrian, Tunisian, or Malian passport travel on a plane? Why don't European Union countries grant visas?

On the night between 25 and 26 February 2023, in Cutro, on the Calabrian coast, a boat with 180 people on board, which was in deep difficulty due to bad weather, sank. That night 94 women, men, and children lost their lives due to the inaction of Italian and European institutions. Frontex - the European Border and Coast Guard Agency - and the Italian Coast Guard would have been aware of the presence of the vessel in the sea and the precariousness of the situation, but they did not bother to launch an appropriate rescue operation. Investigations are currently underway by the Crotone prosecutor's office to understand the dynamics of that night and identify those responsible for the failure to assist. The Cutro tragedy, in addition to the embarrassing statements by the Minister of the Interior Matteo Piantedosi and the shifting of responsibility from one institution to another, was followed by numerous protests and demonstrations of solidarity with the migrants, including an inter-confessionalVia Crucis led by the Archbishop of Cutro Angelo Raffaele Panzetta and Imam Mustafa Achik. despite numerous demonstrations of public disdain towards government policies on migration, shortly after the tragedy, the Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni decided to convert Decree 20/2023, also known as the "Cutro Decree", into law, a disgrace to begin with, with a name that speculates on a devastating human tragedy.

 With this new decree, the special protection that many people relied on to receive asylum on Italian territory was severely limited, thus condemning them to irregularity. «In Italy, we are privileged, protected by one of the most powerful passports in the world», Castiglione explains, «we struggle to remember that we too have always been a migrant people. The privileges we have prevent us from caring about others. Until an event affects us on a personal level, we do not act. We get angry, we get emotional in front of the television, but then we turn it off and go to sleep. I'm tired of seeing the squares full only when massacres happen. We need a daily commitment, otherwise we become accomplices».

In a country where migration is treated as an issue of public order and security, and where people who face years of devastating journeys are seen as objects, it is almost impossible to talk about migration from another perspective. Giorgia Linardi describes the situation like this: «Politics has a long way to go, even those who think they are progressive. We need to revolutionize our language, especially given future migrations that will increase throughout the world due to climate change. In the same way, there is a lot of work to do for us too: sea rescue is used as the only lens to talk about migration, but it is not the best nor the most positive filter through, which we treat a symptom. If we want to talk about migration we must put an end to the policy-creating hysteria that leads people to die at sea. The migration issue must be normalized, making known to the public the migrants with whom we live every day and who at this moment do not have the right to express themselves.» 

Linardi underlines a very important theme: what lens should we use to talk about migration? In Italy, we only focus on the last stretch of the journey, which often lasts years, and involves enormous losses and suffering. Migration does not only exist the moment someone knocks on our door, it exists from the moment conditions in a country are so unsustainable that people cannot stay. The problem is that those conditions are often created by European countries themselves - and by companies or multinationals from the Global North - who then pay the Libyan coast guard to detain and torture migrants. Colonialism and the exploitation of territories beyond the Mediterranean did not end with the independence proclamations of the twentieth century, they continue today in new forms.

2024 opened with the administrative detention of the Ocean Viking in the port of Bari, fined for having saved 70 people from certain death. It is natural to ask how those who let people die at sea, in the desert, or in Libyan prisons manage to look at themselves in the mirror every morning. In a world where the bombardment of news is constant, and where individualism is a way of life, the corpses that dot the seabed of Italian waters are nothing but numbers, distant stories listened to distractedly on the radio or TV. Amid this apathy, the solution is to reach our arms out, as Linardi says, because, in a Europe where walls are built and imaginary borders are fortified, it is necessary to build bridges. Both from a physical point of view, to guarantee safe crossing for those who request it, and to find an antidote to the intoxication of indifference that has invaded the homes of Europeans for years. But to build bridges, it is essential to bring the right to travel to the center of public debate. The lack of legal ways to travel will not stop migratory flows, because moving, migrating and traveling are intrinsically human actions to which everyone must have the right to. The current situation only makes traveling more dangerous, encouraging violence and illegal human trafficking. The height or thickness of a wall, physical or metaphorical, does not matter; there will always be a way to get around it. 

Share Facebook Twitter Linkedin