Can Europe Make It?

A joint statement on sea rescue

The current COVID-19 crisis makes it even more urgent for the European Union to address current and future migration challenges. This joint statement is an attempt to open up a path of solidarity and cooperation.

Sandro Mezzadra Caterina Di Fazio Etienne Balibar
6 October 2020, 1.33pm
Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario – Aita Mari

“The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, are calling for the immediate disembarkation of more than 400 rescued migrants and refugees currently on board three vessels in the Central Mediterranean […]. The humanitarian imperative of saving lives should not be penalized or stigmatized, especially in the absence of dedicated State-led efforts. The lack of agreement on a regional disembarkation mechanism, long called for by IOM and UNHCR, is not an excuse to deny vulnerable people a port of safety and the assistance they need, as required under international law […]. IOM and UNHCR are deeply concerned about the continued absence of dedicated EU-led search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean.” UNHCR and IOM call, Geneva, August 29, 2020

The initiatives Mediterranea, Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario and Sea-Eye, rescuing migrants at sea, joined Agora Europe and its partners, the Columbia University Committee on Forced Migration and Alliance Program, Studio Europa Maastricht, the Maritime Club of Hendaye Txingudi, Les Sauveteurs en Mer SNSM, Ulysse Bookshop, SOS Racismo, Irungo Harrera Sarea and Baobab Experience – to shed light on the situation of exile in an event held in Hendaye, on August 29. The event,“ Est-ce que l’eau est une frontière?” (“Is Water a Border”) was an opportunity to highlight the departure of the new missions of Mare Jonio, also on August 29, and Sea-Watch 4, as both ships were changing course to provide assistance to the Louise Michel after several emergency calls for help were ignored. The occasion also marked the fact that the boat Aita Mari is still blocked at the Pasai Donibane port due to the administrative constraints imposed by the Italian government.

As a border in motion, opened to adventures and exchanges of resources, the sea can be a living environment. As a space of disappearance, forced shipwreck, a barrier against the hope of a safe haven, it has become one of the visages of mass death. This today, at the global level, is the essential dilemma. We live in a strange period, in which the movements of human beings, more vital than ever, are prohibited and constrained. Some constraints can be justified, others are more aberrant than ever, when it comes to freedoms as well as our common interests.

Initiatives such as the public assembly on ‘water as a border’ held in Hendaye this August are needed more than ever since the governments of “Fortress Europe”, among others, still perceive migrations as a threat. Migration is too often reduced to a question of national security. The migration problem has changed the European discourse, because it has transported the ideology that in some countries equates immigration to illegality to all the countries of the Union, producing dangerous effects at the policy level.

Indeed, in response to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, Europe came up with the idea of a direct association between securing the existence of and closing borders, such that the relationship with the ‘others’ can only happen on the basis of fear and criminalization. Fear, far from being reduced, remains central on the emotional level, even while we witness a constant effort to reduce it, so to speak, physically, that is to say, by building walls and turning back boats.


A few years ago, when the Aquarius was blocked as a result of the actions of European governments (including those of Italy and France), some of us publicly spoke out against genocidal practices. We were told that this was an exaggeration! But how else should we designate the militarized and planned policies resulting in the organised elimination of a distinct part of humanity, the one we have named wandering humanity, or the mobile part of humanity?

The European governments – our governments, for which we are responsible – do not only act passively towards a situation which is out of control, they do plan this murdering elimination (and its other face is translated into the shameful gathering camps of Lesbos and elsewhere). This cowardliness and cruelty takes the form of complicity, a will that cannot be admitted but that is nevertheless being implemented.

However, this complicity and this will, usurping the names of politics and law, do not solve anything: neither the issues raised by population flows nor the challenges of international law, governance and community in Europe. On the contrary, year after year, they produce the self-destruction of Europe, both morally and administratively. A community of nations and citizens never yet existed in history without a certain self-respect, part of which includes treating the foreigner and the refugee as a friend.

The Aquarius affair, and more broadly the criminalization of sea rescue, has made clear that the European political space understands itself as capable of permitting unrestricted freedom of movement within its internal borders – the Schengen area – only if it denies movement across its external borders. Borders and, more precisely, the process of the externalization of EU borders, pose normative and political challenges to the determination of an integrated political space. The issue of migration therefore calls into question our conception of what we define as the European political space.

A history of borders

At least since the 1990s the question of borders and their often-lethal operations against people in transit has been at the centre of critical debates and activism in many parts of the world. In Europe, as well as for instance in Australia, the maritime border has become more and more prominent over the years. This is of course due to some dramatic accidents and shipwrecks (for instance, the collision between the Katër I Radës, carrying migrants from Albania, and a ship of the Italian Navy in 1997, and the shipwreck of October 3, 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa), and more generally to the intolerable number of men, women, and children that lost their lives over recent decades in the attempt to cross the European maritime border.

In modern Europe, the steady emergence of the new cartographic notion of a linear border was strictly associated with the formation of territorial states. While European space was reorganized around that notion, the sea – as well as the colonial world – was subjected to different and shifting legal and political formations. The liquidity of the sea seems even today to resist the geometric accuracy of bordering, as the often-elusive intertwining of territorial waters, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones, SAR zones, and international waters amply demonstrates.

Nevertheless, in many parts of the world and in particular in the Mediterranean, bordering exercises are under way for the extraction of resources and above all for the management of migration. As many activists engaged in sea rescue contend, such bordering exercises have wider implications for the way in which borders are managed even on land. This makes the stakes of sea rescue even higher today.

Humanitarian reason

In our own writings on borders and migration we have always emphasized the stubbornness of people on the move, their challenge to the border regime, their struggles, and their mundane yet risky practice of freedom of movement. We are convinced that this emphasis is even more important today, in a conjuncture that is characterized, to different degrees in different countries, by the criminalization of humanitarianism and humanitarian intervention. For a relatively long time, humanitarian actors had been part of the border regime in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Militarization and humanitarianism have indeed often intermingled in the operations of the European border regime since the early 2000s, definitely opening up contradictions and room for manoeuvre, but also leading to what critical scholars have often described as a governmentalization of the “humanitarian reason.”

The situation appears completely different today. Activists and volunteers engaged in sea rescue, although employing different languages and mobilizing different imaginaries, seem to be more and more aware of the fact that their action has a more general oppositional and political meaning. They do not look any more to migrants as mere victims, but rather acknowledge their struggles as a crucial point of reference. The increasing circulation among activists and volunteers engaged in sea rescue of the reference to the legacy of black abolitionism in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, and especially to the “Underground Railroad” is particularly significant in this regard.

Mediterranea – Mare Jonio

Civil society actors and citizenship

While we are all looking at what is happening in the Mediterranean, where people continue to drown amongst the indifference of European authorities, we are also aware of the fact that developments at sea are immediately connected with politics and society on land.

The formation of a transnational civil fleet is in this regard extraordinarily important, since it foreshadows a principle of cooperation between civil society actors at the European level that could be an example for a multitude of social movements and struggles currently developing in many parts of the continent. In a time of pandemic, when crucially important decisions need to be taken in the fields of economic and social policies, the question of migration continues to be strategic both regarding the development of European citizenship and society and regarding Europe’s relations with its multiple outsides – its position in a tumultuously and rapidly changing world. At the end of the day, these are the stakes sea rescue is confronted with in the Mediterranean today.

In fact, we must address here our fellow-citizens. No one believes, no one is saying that it is easy for citizens to enter in the world of solidarities required for humanity – today facing unprecedented challenges in terms of environment, inequalities, coexistence between cultures – to be able to govern ourselves, and to defend ourselves against our own nihilist trends. But it is up to us, citizens of our regions and of our countries, European citizens, global citizens, to lead our States and our co-citizens in this direction, proving that we can imagine another use of seas and borders, and that this is both possible and urgent.

This is the purpose of these fraternal encounters, these peaceful insurrections, international convergences, including the event in Hendaye. Agora Europe is convinced that migrations are an opportunity, in particular for the Euro-Med region. Freedom of movement constitutes part of a global right to mobility, which clearly translates into a practice of human dignity.

European shape-shifting

The migrations’ causes and routes are diverse. All reflect the choice of individuals to leave a situation which constitutes a denial of their human dignity. Refugees are fleeing Syria because of the civil war, the lack of job opportunities and the human rights violations, transiting through Turkey and remaining stuck in exile in Lebanon, as well as in other neighbouring or transit countries. They are walking in the mountains, crossing borders at night, taking boats, risking their lives, looking for safe places where to live, in which their humanity is recognized as such.

The agreement with Turkey and the disembarkation of boats back at the Libyan coast pushes out the edges of the European space itself. The multiplication of illegal push-backs at European external borders – amounting to around 10,000 only this year, from Croatia to the Balkans Route, from Cyprus and Greece to Turkey, with a possible chain refoulement to Syria; and 60,000 from Malta and Italy to Libya since 2015 – these dangerously normalize systematic violations of people’s fundamental rights at European borders. The fact that increasing numbers of refugee camps are becoming established on the borders of the European area – or even outside it – is a concrete manifestation of the way Europe is reshaping its imaginary geography.

Policies leading to a number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea – more than 500 in only 9 months, in addition to innumerable forced disappearances ­– cannot be considered acceptable. The strategy adopted by Malta in the case of the Maersk Etienne cargo, which has been forbidden to disembark its 22 migrants, forced to remain on board with the crew for more than 30 days, shows the systematic violations of Maritime International Conventions of Search and Rescue in the Central Med.

The strategy of criminalization of rescue that has been adopted, through the threat of ships being “stuck” at sea, will most likely dissuade other ships from saving lives. This strategy violates the International Maritime Convention, as the SAR and SOLAS Conventions provide that the State coordinating the Search and Rescue zone where the rescue takes place has ‘the responsibility to provide a place of safety, or to ensure that a place of safety is provided’.

Dangerous routes

Due to the dangers of the passage through Libya and following the closure of Italian ports – given the attempt to ‘import’ the Australian model of offshore processing and detention policies (Operation Sovereign Borders, known as the ‘Stop the Boats’ policy) to the EU, in particular in the cases of Italy, Malta and, lately, Greece, and more specifically in recent responses of the Italian government to the refugee crisis and its control over external borders (Decreto Sicurezza Bis) ­­– the Western route has become the most frequently used route into Europe. Additionally, the Atlantic route to Europe, i.e. the perilous passage from West Africa to the Canary Islands that was once a major route for migrants, is being used more and more. This is the most dangerous. As a result, it is paramount to address the problem of where to locate state borders in the liquid space of the Euro-Med region and the Atlantic, a space where borders dissolve, leaving us with the subsequent problem of the indeterminacy of national responsibility.

The current COVID-19 crisis makes it even more urgent for the European Union to address current and future migration challenges. Ultimately, the current challenges cannot be addressed without involving CSOs and organizations that operate in the SAR zone and know the local situation. Such is the purpose of this Joint Statement on Sea Rescue, aimed at reinforcing the universal principle of non-refoulement, in the conviction that the protection of lives at sea shall endure in our societies both among the current priorities of European action and as long-standing transnational common values, that forced disappearances shall be visible and avoidable, and deaths avoidable and accountable.



Amel FR
Baobab Experience IT
Collectif de soutien de l’EHESS aux sans-papiers et aux migrant-es (LDH) FR
Mediterranea IT
Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario ES
Sea-Eye DE
SOS Racismo ES

Lefèvre Virginie, Amel FR
Caccia Giuseppe, Mediterranea IT
Giannacopoulos Maria, Flinders University AU
Inerrarity Daniel, Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea ES
Mijangos Iñigo, Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario ES
Weidenhiller Sophie, Sea-Eye DE
Morris Rosalind, Columbia University US
Schulz Miriam, Columbia University US
Constantini Gianluca, Fumettista IT
Benhabib Seyla, Yale University US
Sala Roberta, Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele IT
Terraciano Pasquale, INSR IT
Resta Eligio, Università degli Studi Roma 3 IT
Gianni Alfonso, Fondazione Cercare Ancora IT
Pullano Teresa, University of Basel CH
Costa Andrea, Baobab Experience IT
Boccia Marialuisa, Università di Siena IT
Fiorillo Michele, Civico FR
Montanari Tomaso, Università per Stranieri di Siena IT
Visone Tommaso, Sapienza-Università di Roma IT
Ben-Yehoyada Naor, Columbia University US
Bessone Magali, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne FR
De Lucas Javier, Senador/Universitat de Valencia ES
Gundogdu Ayten, Barnard College-Columbia University US
De Leonardis Ota, Università Milano-Bicocca IT
Calame Claude, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) FR
Garcès Blanca, Barcelona Center for International Affairs ES
Wihtol de Wenden, Catherine CNRS SciencesPo FR
Palazzotto Erasmo, MP IT
Canfora Luciano, Università di Bari IT
Varotti Carlo, Università di Parma IT
François Arnaud, Université de Poitiers FR
Nicolaidis Kalypso, University of Oxford UK

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