Since 2015, there has been a dramatically decreased numbers of refugees arriving by sea in Europe. The European Union unanimously agreed to triple spending for its border and coast guard agency. Italy has banned the aid organizations from operating rescue vessels in its territorial waters, and Malta denies them entry to its harbors when refugees are on board.
For the past three years, NGO-linked rescue ships –as many as 12 in 2017, now just five–have picked up refugees largely in international waters and delivered them to European ports, where they can apply for asylum. The group SOS Méditerranée says that during its two years of emergency sea rescues, it alone has rescued more than 29,000 migrants.
As recently as a year ago, there was little fuss about the ships operated by charity groups such as Refugee Rescue (Northern Ireland), Médecins Sans Frontières (France), Jugend Rettet and Sea-Watch (Germany), Boat Refugee Foundation (Netherlands), and Save the Children (United Kingdom), among others. Many Europeans seemed to see them as high-minded Samaritans saving the lives of helpless seaborne migrants
In July Claus-Peter Reisch, the captain of a German NGO ship named Lifeline, was charged with entering Malta’s waters illegally with 234 migrants, whom the ship’s crew had picked up in waters off Libya on June 21. The impounding of the Lifeline–as well as the new prevention measures–has rekindled a debate about the ethics involved in the EU’s response to refugees headed for its shores: Are the rescue ships saving innocent lives because EU states have failed to do so? Or are they collaborating with the human smugglers who, it is claimed, deliver refugees right to the ships? And further: Is it just to turn back or not rescue refugees at sea, in order to deter others? And is there a legitimate basis for criminalizing the basic humanitarianism involved in saving migrants who might otherwise drown?
In the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, the journalist Wolfgang Luef expressed shock that there was divided opinion in Germany on the matter of whether to help dying people or just leave them to perish. This is the “first step to barbarism,” he opined ominously, “the beginning of the end of the European idea.”