25 April 2019: The current massive displacement of people worldwide has turned into a politicized crisis of solidarity, with closed border policies and the rise of xenophobic, populist trends. The blocking and harassment of search and rescue ships and of NGOs that legally attempt to pursue their activities compromises all efforts to save the lives of persons in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. States should respect the international legal framework in particular the maritime law and take responsibility for the lives of migrants and refugees.
These were the main conclusions of a debate organized by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue on Migration and Human Solidarity. The event was an opportunity for the Geneva Centre to officially launch its latest publication on the causes and consequences of migration today, including refugees and IDPs, entitled The Unprecedented Rise of People on the Move in the 21st Century. The panel discussion was held on 25 April 2019, at the United Nations Office in Geneva.
All the members of the panel were experts with first-hand experience in the migrant and refugee crisis, and their presentations highlighted concrete problems observed during their work on the ground, in coordinating rescue operations and aid distribution, or documenting and raising awareness of the situation. The panel included Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission; Mr José Benavente, President of the French Association Pilotes Volontaires; Ms Julie Melichar, Citizen Mobilisation & Communication Officer at SOS Méditerranée; Ms Camille Pagella, journalist at L’Illustré and Mr Adrià Budry Carbó, journalist at Le Temps, joint recipients of the first ACANU (Association of Accredited Correspondents at the United Nations) Prize for Reporting on Human Rights Issues.
Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, Executive Director of the Geneva Centre, delivered opening remarks and moderated the panel debate.
In his opening remarks, Ambassador Jazairy deplored the tendency of most European States to avoid responsibility for lives lost due to the “Fortress Europe” syndrome. The Director of the Geneva Centre reiterated the need to distinguish between the migration crisis per se, which is caused by a lack of economic opportunities, poverty, as well as the adverse effect of climate change on people’s livelihood, and the refugee crisis, mainly triggered in the past by conflict and war, and increasingly by climate change. He underscored that the push factor of refugee flows is man-made and should be acknowledged as such. He reiterated that migration and displacement had been a constant part of humanity, and that the current migration flows are dubbed “a crisis” particularly by fabricated nationalist narratives.
Furthermore, Ambassador Jazairy noted that the Mediterranean Sea had turned into a liquid graveyard, quoting IOM global statistics revealing that over 3400 migrants and refugees lost their lives in 2018. At least 2’297 of these lives were lost in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Director of the Geneva Centre saluted the rise of civil society organizations willing to step in, to offer protection and to save migrants’ and refugees’ lives. He commended these rescue organisations for their endeavours, despite the criminalisation of their action to save lives, dubbed a “délit de solidarité”.
In his presentation, Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo deplored the growing trend to build legislative and administrative walls and barriers rather than to offer solidarity in the context of today’s displaced populations. In his presentation, he referred to Pope Francis’ Message for the Catholic Church’s 104th observance of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, on 14 January 2018. In his address, Pope Francis highlighted the religious and moral leadership of the Catholic Church in offering “motherly love to every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future”. His Holiness also deplored the “collective and arbitrary expulsions of migrants and refugees, (…) particularly where people are returned to countries which cannot guarantee respect for human dignity and fundamental rights.”
Further quoting the words of Pope Francis, Monsignor Vitillo underscored that the problem of statelessness that numerous migrants and refugees faced could be easily tackled through “the adoption of nationality legislation in conformity with the fundamental principles of international law”. Monsignor Vitillo further presented the extensive work of the International Catholic Migration Commission, inspired since its creation in 1951 by Catholic Teaching. He concluded his remarks with a strong call for governments to improve their response to migrants and refugees, noting that “All human beings long for a better and more prosperous life, and the challenge of migration cannot be met with a mind-set of violence and indifference, nor by offering merely partial solutions.” Responding to Ambassador Jazairy’s question on the role of religious leaders in this crisis, he highlighted their pivotal role in countering the toxic narrative surrounding people on the move, and emphasized the importance of political will. In this regard, he spoke of the example of Uganda, a small country that had received 300 000 South Sudanese refugees.
Mr José Benavente, President of the French Association Pilotes Volontaires, deplored in his presentation the fatalities of the migratory routes in the Mediterranean region. He recalled the testimonies of displaced persons who pass through Libya to reach European soil that depict the inhumane conditions and violations of human rights characterizing these passages, including torture, human trafficking and sexual abuse.
Based on his first-hand experience, Mr Benavente offered a detailed description of the often improvised and always dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea in wooden or inflatable boats. He underscored the overloading of boats, the dangers of asphyxiation with fuel vapours, the lack of food and water. Furthermore, he underscored that at the moment when these boats start drifting in high seas, the countdown for the lives of the refugees and migrants on-board starts.
As a pilot, Mr Benavente highlighted the fact that these boats are often difficult to spot at high sea. Oftentimes, he said, rescue ships arrive too late, only to find semi-floating shipwrecks and no survivors. In this regard, Mr Benavente and his partner created the Association Pilotes Volontaires, to respond to the need of quickly identifying persons in distress at sea by aerial means. They fly over a specific portion of international waters off the coast of Libya, where more than 20 000 lives were lost over the past four years.
Mr Benavente highlighted that, in 2018, Pilotes Volontaires in partnership with search and rescue ships identified 45 boats and saved more than 4000 persons. He concluded by underscoring the urgent need of the association for increased financial means and donations in order to pursue the rescue operations. Finally, he called for a concerted effort from the international community to ensure that rescue operations are carried efficiently, rapidly and in the full respect of International Maritime Law, which stipulates that all survivors must be disembarked in a safe port.
Ms Julie Melichar of SOS Méditerranée highlighted the work of SOS Méditerranée, noting that since the launch of their search and rescue operations, the Aquarius ship had welcomed more than 29,532 survivors on board. According to Ms Melichar, the objectives of the organization were threefold: rescue, protect and testify.
Echoing the concerns of previous panellists, Ms Melichar underscored the growing loss of lives at sea as a result of the lack of rescue capacities and of “recurring violations of international and maritime law.” She further deplored the ongoing blocking and harassment of search and rescue NGOs. In this regard, Ms Melichar recalled that at this moment, almost all NGO rescue ships are blocked from leaving European ports, with hundreds of people left to drown at sea, or unlawfully returned and exposed to inhumane conditions.
Furthermore, Ms Melichar recounted her experience during the first standoff of the Aquarius ship in 2018. As with other rescue ships, the Aquarius had fallen victim to political manipulation, stripped of its flag and blocked in various ports in the Mediterranean Sea on several occasions in 2018, until its activities were completely stopped towards the end of last year.
Ms Melichar denounced the actions of the Libyan Search and Rescue Region, created as a result of the Malta Declaration signed in February 2017. She remarked that NGOs had to pursue their role of testifying and condemning these violations of maritime law. With regard to the “délit de solidarité”, she noted that almost all legal investigations brought against humanitarian workers in the context of the crisis had been annulled because of lack of evidence, as NGOs worked in full respect of the legal framework. Finally, she concluded by deploring a “paradoxical situation: civil humanitarian ships, who conduct legal search and rescue operations and respond to the duty to deliver assistance, are being criminalised by States who do not uphold anymore the treaties and conventions that they have ratified.”
Journalists Camille Pagella of L’Illustré and Adria Budry of Le Temps recounted their experience on board the Aquarius ship in 2018, which resulted in the publication of a joint extensive coverage entitled “Piège en haute mer” that won the ACANU Prize for Reporting on Human Rights Issues. The documenting mission of the two journalists occurred in the context of the Italian elections last spring, and against the background of a growing populist trend, with European politicians pledging to block the activities of humanitarian ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Mr Budry described various attempts of the ships of the Libyan Coast Guard to harass and block the rescue actions of the Aquarius.
Similarly, Ms Pagella described a joint effort between the Aquarius and of the Astral ship of the NGO Proactiva Openarms, involving the transfer of over 100 persons in distress, blocked for hours by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome.
The joint presentation highlighted the constant harassment attempts of the Libyan Coast Guard, which is often supported by European States, aimed at blocking the actions of humanitarian ships. They condemned the intimidation practices used by the Libyan Guards, as well as the externalization of the responsibility for the migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea by the surrounding European States. They deplored the inhumane conditions in which migrants and refugees crossed the sea, the insecurity and lack of supplies, which they could witness first hand during their mission. Their poignant testimony reminded the audience that beyond the politicization of the migrants and refugee crisis, there was an ongoing humanitarian crisis that was overshadowed by populist narratives.
Referring to a question from the moderator on media disinformation and toxic narratives, Mr Budry remarked that it was important not to combat it, but to promote a counter-discourse of tolerance and solidarity completed by hard facts and figures. He noted that in the upcoming Spanish elections, the exclusion of the extreme right party Vox had rather benefitted the latter, as they would not be involved in public debates where their toxic discourse could be publicly challenged by others. Ms Pagella also referred to the role of the media of providing an objective, rigorously researched overview of the crisis, insisting on the importance of terminology.
During the Q&A session, Professor Michel Veuthey, Deputy Permanent Observer of the Permanent Delegation of the Sovereign Order of Malta, added that it was important to take preventive measures by ensuring harmonious integration of potential migrants in their countries of origin, and therefore, even more fundamentally, resolve the conflicts which lay at the source of these migratory crises (MENA and Sahel regions).
A representative from the Norwegian NGO Justice and Development referred to the ongoing internal conflict in Libya, observing that the bombing of refugee centres around Tripoli by the army of General Khalifa Haftar was inadmissible. A representative from ICMC brought up the issue of monitoring and addressing the problems of human trafficking inherent in the migrant crisis. Ambassador Jazairy observed that trafficking is a crisis within the broader refugee crisis, but the latter should be addressed in terms of repression of trafficking. Msgr Vitillo added that human trafficking was a broad issue in its own right, but that had little to do with refugees. Ms Melichar said that on rescue ships it is difficult to identify victims of human trafficking, but efforts were made in identifying certain categories of vulnerable persons such as unaccompanied minors, victims of torture and of sexual assault. A member of the audience referred to the situation in Colombia where the latter has increased its national debt so as to help Venezuelan refugees. Msgr Vitillo said that international solidarity versus national priorities was not an “either/or” issue, but a question of appropriate distribution of resources between priorities. Referring to Colombia, he added that in earlier days, Colombian refugees had also benefitted from the hospitality of Venezuelans.