Rampage at the Mediterranean

ROME/BERLIN (Own report) - With EU backing, the Italian government's rampage of refusing to accept refugees is continuing. Over the weekend, Rome again closed its ports to one of its government's ships and a ship from EU authorities, because they were carrying refugees, who had been in distress at sea. Italy's Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, refuses to accept the refugees and threatens to deport them to Libya. In so doing, Italy is simultaneously violating several fundamental norms of international law. Berlin and the EU are not protesting. On the contrary, several EU countries are supporting Rome in its measures against private maritime rescuers - which, in the meantime, have had to shut down their operations. Rome is also receiving support from Germany. An influential weekly is setting the social democratic oriented milieus into the right mood to refuse solidarity with the maritime rescuers. In June, the number of victims had skyrocketed, fueled by the fact that the sea rescuers are no longer in a position to save drowning refugees.

Locked Out (1)

With EU backing, Rome continued its rampage, over the weekend, of warding off refugees. In the middle of last week, after having declared Italian harbors off limits to all private relief organizations rescuing people stranded in distress at sea in the Mediterranean, the Italian government broadened its lockout of Italian harbors, to include, not only warships of allied countries, but even its own coast guard, if they have refugees onboard. This happened first to the Italian Coast Guard vessel Diciotti. The Diciotti had taken on 67 refugees from a tugboat, working for the French oil company, Total, which had saved them from a rubber dinghy. The Diciotti's crew simply wanted to bring the refugees - in accordance with custom - on land. Italy's Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini forbid them to do so. Only following the intervention from President Sergio Mattarella, was the ship allowed to dock and the refugees allowed to go on land. The alleged human smugglers among them will go on trial. All other refugees must serve as witnesses, according to the Italian judiciary.

Locked Out (II)

On the weekend, the Italian government prohibited two other ships from entering Italian harbors - one of Italy's fiscal police boats as well as a ship of the European Agency for the management of Operational Cooperation at the External; Borders (Frontex). Both had taken more than 450 refugees onboard, who were in distress in a wooden boat in the Mediterranean. The Italian Coast Guard took eight women and children to Lampedusa because of their precarious physical condition. All others were still at sea in a precarious predicament on Sunday. Interior Minister Salvini demanded that they be deported to Malta or Libya. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has agreed to have them transferred to other EU countries, if there are enough countries willing to accept them. By yesterday, only Malta, France and - explicitly as a one-time gesture - Germany had declared their willingness to accept 50 refugees each.

In Violation of International Law

With its course of action, Rome - even beyond compelling humanitarian objections, which the Italian government simply whisks aside - is committing multiple violations of international law. For example, several globally valid UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulate that persons in mortal danger on the high seas must unconditionally be rescued, regardless of other considerations. In fact, the Italian government has punished the compulsory emergency relief, by barring the ships' crews, that have rescued refugees from mortal danger from entering Italian ports and exposing them to an unknown fate. This is in violation of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which was originally in response to the sinking of the Titanic, and whose current version has been in force since 1974. It stipulates that the closest state to the rescue ship must admit those rescued at sea in its ports and permit the rescued to come on land as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if the refugees would be deported to Libya, as the Italian government demands, this would be in violation of Article 33 Paragraph 1 of the Geneva Refugee Convention's "prohibition of expulsion or return."[1]

Breaking Taboos

The EU has not intervened against any of these violations - on the contrary. Referring to the maritime rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had already in March 2017 demanded: "This NGO nonsense must be stopped."[2] Not only Malta, but also France and a number of other EU countries have also imposed temporary harbor lockouts on private rescue vessels. In Germany, the forces ready to sacrifice humanitarian international refugee protection norms are also gaining strength. German Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer (CSU) has long since been calling for adapting harsh measures to counter private sea rescuers in the Mediterranean and is harvesting approbation, not just from the CSU, but from sectors of the CDU as well. So far, social democratic and social liberal milieus are still refusing deliberately to let refugees drown in the Mediterranean, as a result of measures applied against private sea rescuers. Attacks are now being aimed at breaking this resistance. The editors of the weekly "Die Zeit" launched a debate last week that can be seen as symptomatic. On a "Pros and Cons" page, the Journal opened the question of Mediterranean rescue - and therefore, implicitly also its fundamental international legal norms - to debate. The fundamental principles of international law - particularly the categorical duty to rescue those in distress at sea - which, until now, was thought inalienable, has been denigrated to an arbitrary matter "of being in favor of" or "opposed to" with the "Pros and Cons" debate. "Die Zeit" traditionally has a rather social-democratic and social-liberal readership. In one of the journal's "Contra" column entries, one author alleges that "drowning in the Mediterranean" is "a political problem to which private maritime rescue cannot contribute." Politics is "not simply doing what is assumed to be good, but of considering things in their context."[3] The author maintains that the "context," however, suggests that in the future, rescuing stranded people in distress will be drastically limited, due to the battle against human smuggling. The latter is, therefore, clearly to be supported because relief organizations, rescuing refugees in distress at sea, are contributing to the "contamination of the political climate in Europe." It would, thus, be more congenial to the EU's "political climate" to ignore the norms of humanitarian international law in the future.

Dual Mortal Danger

The growing barbarism of the situation at the Mediterranean is being accompanied by an increase in breaking taboos - also here in Germany. According to UNHCR statistics, more than 1,400 people drowned attempting to flee across the sea this year. However, this refers only to the officially documented fatalities, which is why a considerable number of unreported cases must be taken into account. The private sea rescue services have been brought to a halt, due to Italy's reprisals, as well as those of other EU countries. This in turn has led to a steep rise in the body count. According to data provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 629 refugees died in June attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach the EU - more than in any previous month of June. Simultaneously, the number of refugees setting sail for Europe has significantly declined. Already in the first semester of 2018, the odds of not reaching the shores of Europe alive were no longer at the previous 1/38, but at 1/19 because of the dramatic skyrocketing fatalities in June.[4] These odds must have dropped even lower, since the private maritime rescue services have been forced to cease their operations. The total number of those, who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean or in the North African deserts trying to flee to Europe, has risen higher than 35,000. Over the past four years, more than 25,000 people worldwide have died while fleeing - more than half of them, according to the refugee organization Pro Asylum, not while trying to cross the notorious southern border into the United States, but rather "in their attempt to reach Europe."[5] This makes the EU the world champion in causing refugee deaths, and with this current rampage in its warding off refugees, it is further expanding its lead.


[1] Internationales Recht: EU muss Bootsflüchtlinge retten und aufnehmen. proasyl.de 23.04.2015.

[2] "Der NGO-Wahnsinn muss beendet werden." diepresse.com 24.03.2017.

[3] Mariam Lau: Retter vergrößern das Problem. zeit.de 11.06.2018.

[4] Markus Grabitz: Noch nie war das Risiko zu ertrinken für Flüchtlinge so hoch. tagesspiegel.de 09.07.2018.

[5] Die hingenommenen Toten: Jedes Jahr sterben Tausende auf der Flucht. proasyl.de 27.02.2018.