The Deadly “Humanitarian Ping-Pong” of Refugee Rescue at Sea

In 2013, a boat capsized 61 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa killing 268 refugees including 60 children. It was another horrific example of the risks taken by so many families fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa. But recently released tapes of conversations with coast guard authorities reveal a deeper tragedy.

During multiple phone calls over five hours a Syrian father is heard pleading with the Italian operator, “We are dying, please,” and the operator repeating, “You have to call Malta, sir.” The Maltese, in a call to Italian authorities, agreed to take control of the rescue mission but asked for the Italian vessel to assist because it was closer. The Italians refused, claiming it would render Italy “in charge of transfer to the nearest coast.” The result was a deadly delay.

During the global refugee crisis of the last few years, governments’ responses to sea crossings have been at best inadequate and at worst cynical. While there are clear obligations of seafarers to assist others at sea – from ancient codes to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea – there is a grey area when it comes to disembarkation and “safe harbor.”  

Delivering migrants to safety on land extends state responsibilities and obliges the country to allow access to national asylum procedures. This blur in the international framework has also allowed states to deny disembarkation of those rescued at sea and leave many people afloat in dangerous limbo.

Unclear Code

For almost a year, I volunteered in various search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and I can say with firsthand experience that disputes akin to the conversation between Italy and Malta are not uncommon or unique to the Mediterranean.

In 2001, the “Tampa Affair” led to a diplomatic dispute when Australia refused entry to a Norwegian ship carrying 438 Afghan refugees rescued from the sea. The base of the United States’ “wet feet, dry feet” policy is the apprehension or admission of Cubans who have entered territorial waters. Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat migrants are routinely bounced from Indonesian to Malaysian to Thai authorities in what has been described as a “humanitarian ping-pong.” A British navy flagship was only recently stuck at anchor in Sicily instead of joining a large planned search and rescue operation because the Italian and British governments could not reach agreement on whether those rescued could be taken to Italian ports.

Government responses to sea crossings have been at best inadequate and at worst cynical

Humanitarian organizations and sometimes merchant vessels – even while being denounced for their actions – are trying to cover the gaps created by the absence of state involvement, but far too many people slip through.

Migrant fatality numbers are generally conservative estimates, based on complicated and strict records, but the numbers are nonetheless gruesome. On average, two children drowned every day in the eastern Mediterranean during the last quarter of 2015, when the Greek islands were welcoming more than 5,000 refugees a day. Arrivals to Europe surpassed 1.2 million that year, dropping to 362,376 people in 2016. Another 34,000 are estimated to have arrived this year, 98 percent of whom came by sea. Of the 1,486 migrant deaths recorded worldwide in 2017, 962 perished in the Mediterranean.

The Caribbean Sea has a long history of migration too and has seen 90 drownings so far in 2017. Between 1982 and 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 222,315 persons in the Caribbean or the adjacent Florida Straits and Mona Passage.

For years, people escaping poverty and violence in the Horn of Africa have taken to the seas through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. In March of this year, a helicopter gunship of unclear origins opened fire on a boat full of Somali refugees off the coast of Yemen killing 42.

The Rohingya, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, stateless and displaced by the tens of thousands, may endure months in the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers before reaching Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Thousands of asylum seekers from Vietnam, Iran, Sri Lanka, China, and other countries also try to cross to Australia by boat from Indonesia. The Australian government sends many to the island of Nauru for holding until they can determine what to do with them.

The list is endless, like the seas.

Safe Passage

Whether from migrants or responders, the phrase you hear most during a rescue is, “Take the children, the children, the children first!” If a baby falls in the water, the chances it survives are close to zero. So, it’s babies and children first. Then the women. Then the men.

Nonetheless, as the poem “Home” says, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

Though the number of people arriving in Europe has declined from its peak in 2015, last year still saw a record number of people displaced globally and there are few indications that the underlying drivers of this disruption will change soon. Less than 10 percent of the world’s displaced population is in the United States or another wealthy European Union country and each day more figures are added to the numbers on the move.

If a baby falls in the water, the chances it survives are close to zero

More than 20 million people in four countries currently face famine or a credible risk of famine, thanks to a combination of drought and violence. The humanitarian costs of the wars in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq seem intractable. At the same time, Venezuela is facing an unprecedented political and economic crisis, prompting thousands of citizens to flee to neighboring countries.

The lack of safe passage, absence of adequate humanitarian corridors, and craven resettlement programs (the UN expects to be able to place only 170,000 of 1.19 million people in need of resettlement this year) leave few alternatives than the boats for many.

But the burden placed on coastal states from the high number of asylum claims is highly problematic. Resolving this legal grey area, which creates perverse incentives for coastal nations to ignore humanitarian responsibilities, should be a priority for any policymaker looking to address the global refugee crisis.

One solution is to offer a wider range of international asylum procedures once a rescue is performed and people are disembarked, instead of providing access only to the national asylum system of the host nation. This would reduce the reluctance of front-line states to take part in operations and also share the responsibility of assisting.  

One thing is clear: Safer passage, whether on sea, land, or in the air, is the only solution to stop turning our seas into aquatic graves. Efforts to simply stop arrivals – as Italy and Libya recently announced a deal to works towards – have historically been unsuccessful. When one route is closed, another tends to open. Indeed, studies have shown that tighter controls on immigration benefit smuggling networks. The more difficult crossings become, because of “natural obstacles, such as the sea, or man-made obstacles, such as surveillance systems,” the better it is for traffickers. Like on land, when walls are built, tunnels are dug.

A better solution to dealing with sea crossings should be an urgent international priority. It’s not a call to morality, it’s a call to reality.

Christina Psarra is a humanitarian worker from Greece and has participated in many search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. She is a Fulbright/Humphrey Fellow and a junior scholar at the Wilson Center.

Sources: Amnesty International, Australian Government Department of Immigrant and Border Protection, CBC Radio-Canada, Death by Rescue, Duke University, European Commission, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, The Independent, International Organization for Migration, IRIN, Médecins Sans Frontières Canada, Migration Policy Institute, The New York Times, Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, Refugees Deeply, Reuters, Time, United Nations, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, United Nations Refugee Agency, The Washington Post.

Photo Credit: Refugee rescue near Lesvos, Greece, October 2015, used with permission courtesy of Christina Psarra. Photo Credit: Ben White/CAFOD.