In the past six years, more than 15,000 people have died or gone missing in the waters between Libya and the southern shores of Europe. Stretched out over time, death on this scale is numbing; it is easy to overlook exactly what is happening and difficult to continue to care.
During the past four years, European policies have made the death rate in the central Mediterranean rise from one for every 40 people who reached Italy to one for every 12.
When NGOs operating search-and-rescue boats stepped in to try to fill the gap, the rescuers were heros. They garnered positive press coverage and won humanitarian awards. One NGO was given a European Citizen’s Prize in 2016 by the European Parliament for its “contribution to European cooperation and the promotion of common values”.
Smugglers changed their tactics, switching from rickety old fishing boats to even more precarious inflatable rafts. Between 2015 and 2017, on days with good weather, so many boats would set out from Libya that the NGOs weren’t able to respond to all of the incidents at the same time.
In Europe, resentment about migration was growing, fueling the rise of far-right political parties. Centrist governments scrambled to adopt tough-on-migration policies, hoping to prevent themselves from sliding in the polls. Search-and-rescue NGOs became a favorite scapegoat. In April 2017, a Sicilian prosecutor claimed that NGOs were working with smugglers to help migrants and asylum seekers reach Europe, only to say, a few months later, that “no evidence [had] yet been found” to back up his statement.
Since the campaign against search-and-rescue NGOs began, the number of asylum seekers and migrants reaching Italy has dropped precipitously, from 120,000 in 2017 to just over 8,000 so far this year. But the decrease is simply the result of European policies that have kept people trapped in Libya, where thousands of asylum seekers and migrants have been stuck in dismal conditions in Libyan detention centres, where torture, sexual violence, extortion and other abuses regularly occur.
The beginning of September saw an unexpected turning point in the campaign against search-and-rescue NGOs. Italy’s populist-far right governing coalition suddenly collapsed and NGO boats are once again allowed to dock in Italian ports, and s deal between Italy, Malta, Germany, and France shows some progress among EU countries on sharing the responsibility of hosting asylum seekers and migrants disembarked in Italy.
These are positive steps, but they aren’t solutions, and they are taken on shaky ground
[Read full article at The New Humanitarian]