Commentary. The failures of migration policies are hidden away behind the slogans of heads of government and ministers, from the ‘hunt for traffickers’ on a global scale to ‘European solidarity’ that translates into policies of refoulement to transit countries, literal deportations.

Grief, shame and a return to reason on migration

We grieve for the lives shattered and for the future of despair that awaits both survivors and families. But also for the failure of years of struggle to affirm the right to life, to tear down borders that kill, to achieve a more just and united country. Today it feels like we are all condemned to a bleak future in which selfishness and state-sponsored nastiness, the new “reasons of state,” prevail over solidarity and social cohesion.

We feel shame, for belonging to a country, and a diminished version of Europe, which discriminate even when it comes to saving lives at sea, ensuring a safe port of landing or recognizing the right to asylum. Shame for the rescues denied under the pretext that the shipwrecked people didn’t want to be rescued. It’s a lie that seems to have lost the ability to cause outrage among the public.

In reality, the shipwrecked hadn’t rejected the assistance offered by the Greek Coast Guard, which – according to the statements of a number of survivors – had hooked the fishing boat with a rope in an attempt to tow it (no one knows where), just before the capsizing. Such an operation almost looks like a forced removal, and certainly doesn’t have the features of a rescue operation according to international rules and practices. But at this point, after the news about the arrests of the alleged traffickers, the lie is elevated to the core principle of the system that governs migration (and not only).

The failures of migration policies are hidden away behind the slogans of heads of government and ministers, from the “hunt for traffickers” on a global scale to “European solidarity” that translates into policies of refoulement to transit countries, literal deportations, because repatriations to the countries of origin are no longer enough. And here, the Italian government is proud to be the main supporter of agreements with countries that don’t respect human rights, even for their own citizens, and don’t recognize the right to international protection. Now they’re calling them “safe third countries.”

At the same time, there is also a failure to ensure cooperation between countries with contiguous search and rescue (SAR) zones in international waters: we have also seen this in the tragedy in Cutro, and now the same issue has returned southwest of the Peloponnese, in the Ionian Sea. Instead, there is increasing support thrown at transit countries so they’ll stop departures, thus lengthening the routes but not stopping the crossings. If people can’t leave from Tripolitania, they’ll leave from Cyrenaica, and if that route is closed as well, they’ll start from Egypt or the Gulf of Sirte.

Despite the agreements between the European Union and Turkey, Erdogan is actually implementing a systematic policy of expelling Syrian and Afghan refugees there. This is what happens when you involve governments that don’t respect human rights in what is being called “migration flow management.” But what it really means is men, women, children sentenced to death, with the certainty of impunity.

We need to return to reason: to identify the criminal and political responsibilities, to return to compliance with the rules that enjoin states to conduct sea rescues, to prevent these tragedies from continuing to be repeated in the future amidst general desensitization, as if death were the punishment for these people’s attempt at escape, and, in the end, just the most fearsome out of the many tools for “deterring” departures and containing migratory mobility. But tragedies won’t stop the departures and attempts to cross the Mediterranean of those who have nothing left to lose but their lives.

We need reason, then, to identify a chain of responsibility. The division of the Mediterranean into so many different search and rescue (SAR) zones, which cannot become areas of exclusive jurisdiction but are areas of shared responsibility, should not impede the clear identification of which state authorities are responsible for ensuring border surveillance, nor should it impede the higher purpose, in accordance with international treaties, of safeguarding human life at sea.

Article 9 of Frontex Regulation No. 656/2014/EU says: “When, in the course of a sea operation, the participating units have reason to believe that they are facing a phase of uncertainty, alert or distress as regards a vessel or any person on board, they shall promptly transmit all available information to the Rescue Coordination Centre responsible for the search and rescue region in which the situation occurs and they shall place themselves at the disposal of that Rescue Coordination Centre.”

According to the International Manual on Sea Rescue (IAMSAR), the various national rescue coordination centers are required to cooperate in the case of mass rescues in international waters, as has been done at other times in the past.

Beyond the investigations of the Greek judiciary, it will take an international investigation, probably at the European level, to ascertain what went wrong when the fishing boat sank southwest of the Peloponnese, with many similarities to the Steccato di Cutro tragedy, particularly with regard to the first aerial sightings of the boat, by Frontex, on the morning of June 13.

Because, beyond grief and shame, only reason can really push us to establish the responsible parties and establish new rescue processes, coordinated among different states, without the exclusion of civilian rescue vessels, to make sure that these massacres, with people abandoned at sea, will never happen again.

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