Can Europe Make It?

The ‘refugee crisis’ in the Mediterranean: the role of EU states, civil society and art

As the EU turns away from international human rights commitments, asserting border controls at almost any cost including that to humanitarian activists, what role can art play?

Anna Morvern
18 April 2018
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Italian rescue ship Vos Prudence run by NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres arrives in July, 2017, in the port of Salerno carrying 935 migrants, including 16 children and 7 pregnant women rescued from the Mediterranean sea.NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.In the context of the ‘refugee crisis’[1] in and around the Mediterranean, the European Union is devoting its resources to the exclusion of refugees and migrants using increased surveillance and militarization of its borders, by affiliation with entities and States for whom human rights are not a priority. With an enormous death toll at sea and huge numbers arriving, civil society across Europe has mobilized to manifest alternative values of hospitality to welcome refugees and solidarity towards those at the borders. This paper will survey human rights reports and activist materials to consider these two phenomena, before asking questions about the scope for artists to respond to the refugee crisis. 

Four years ago, in October 2014, Operation Mare Nostrum, the Italian government’s humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean to rescue people in boats in peril on journeys from Libya, was terminated. The replacement Frontex (EU) mission, Operation Triton, part-funded by voluntary contributions from the Irish state, has a markedly lesser focus on search-and-rescue and an increased focus on surveillance and “border security”.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that deaths at sea have risen nine times since the ending of Operation Mare Nostrum.[2] Its ‘Missing Migrants Project’ documents minimum estimated deaths in the Mediterranean: 401 at the time of writing for the first weeks of 2018. The organization, “Death by Rescue”, has analysed migrant shipwrecks which have led to the deaths of many in the Mediterranean. It documents that, to fill the void left by the substantial withdrawal of state-led search-and-rescue activities, commercial ships became the primary search-and-rescue actors in the central Mediterranean, rescuing 11,954 people between 1 January and 20 May 2015 alone but also apparently playing a major role in deaths because of their lack of specialist capacity to provide such missions (thus, “death by rescue”).

The organization concludes: “[…] ending Mare Nostrum did not lead to less crossings, only to more deaths at sea and a higher rate of mortality.” As of last month, Operation Triton is being morphed into Operation Themis – I comment on this name below – due to have an “enhanced law enforcement focus”, continuing the metamorphosis of EU search-and-rescue operations into militarized surveillance and border control missions.

Big business

Such militarized surveillance and border control is big business, with the EU working in partnership with the global arms and defence industry in this context. The EU has a proliferation of working groups and partners developing “defensive” technologies to control human movement at the borders. Just a few examples of these entities are as follows: EUROSUR, the European border surveillance system with a stated aim of “prevent[ing] illegal migration”; the European Organization for Security Integrated Border and Security Working Group, with a stated aim of “development and uptake of better technology solutions for border security [including] along maritime and land borders”; ROBORDER, with a stated aim of “developing and demonstrating a fully-functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots […] in order to provide accurate decision support services to the corresponding authorities for border controlling”; OCEAN2020, which focuses on naval defence by means of unmanned systems. The plethora of institutions and the size of the budgets assigned to these projects demonstrate EU plans to contract giants of the defence industry to patrol and police its sea borders using state-of-the-art technology: the EU fund launched in 2016 to build the Union’s military capabilities “foresees a pooled €5 billion […] procurement budget.”

Ireland’s decision to participate in PESCO, the EU defence co-operation plan, was approved by a Dáil majority of 75-42 last year – against the backdrop of the State apparently wishing to affirm its position within the EU alongside negotiations around the impact of Brexit – and will entail substantial financial contributions by the State.

Since 2016, the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders has taken the principled decision no longer to accept finance from EU funds and institutions, stating:

“Europe’s main focus is not on how well people will be protected, but on how efficiently they are kept away… There is nothing remotely humanitarian about these policies. It cannot become the norm and must be challenged… MSF will not receive funding from institutions and governments whose policies do so much harm.”

The myriad national-level and European-level immigration laws, imposing entry requirements, and the lack of safe passage initiatives have caused refugees and other migrants to risk unsafe, illegal routes at sea. There, EU policy is operating to prevent many fleeing war and poverty from reaching our shores.

Outsourcing EU responsibilities

The EU is also abandoning its supposed humanitarian values by outsourcing its responsibilities for refugees to non-EU countries. A major step in that direction was the EU-Turkey deal (“the Statement”) of two years ago whereby migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece would be returned to Turkey, a country with a history of human rights abuses, not least against its large Kurdish minority[3] and where over 50,000 people were detained following a coup in July 2016.

Turkey would be paid €6 billion in return for its cooperation. Amnesty International noted that this deal meant EU leaders “blithely disregarding their international obligations” towards refugees. Meanwhile, Greece, “the eurozone's delinquent”, was effectively abandoned in terms of European cooperation in accommodating refugees, becoming, as the Greek prime minister described it, a “warehouse of souls”. Humanitarians and activists in Greece have protested the terrible human rights abuses occurring on EU territory since the EU-Turkey deal, including overcrowding of the Greek islands, the very poor situation in the camps with inadequate accommodation, facilities and protections.[4] International non-governmental organizations with refugee protection and human rights at the heart of their missions were criticized for their initial failure to act and later mismanagement of the situation. Amnesty International has also reported another all too predictable implication of the Statement – it has resulted “in muting EU criticism of human rights abuses in Turkey.”

The EU’s strategic response to the human movement towards Europe has been to intensify its border security operations beyond the EU border and deep into Africa, for example, by providing funding to Sudan, in its words, “to tackle root causes of instability, irregular migration and forced displacement”. The EU insists that, in providing funding, it is not giving money directly to the Sudanese Government, whose President Omar Al-Bashir is subject to an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, stating that “all activities are carried out by agencies of EU Member States, international organisations, private sector entities and NGOs”. Major concerns are already being voiced about the involvement of the Janjaweed – implicated in Darfur war crimes – as border guards, with IRIN news documenting “endemic” abuses and asking whether “[the] pattern of corruption and rights violations uncovered feeds into broader concerns over whether the EU’s migration policies are making a difficult situation worse.”

The EU is also replicating such outsourcing or “externalization” policies in Libya, where the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (also known as Frontex) is working with the Libyan Coast Guard. Human Rights Watch has commented:

“Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, who flock to Libya mostly en route to Europe, experience torture, sexual assault and forced labor at the hands of prison guards, members of the coast guard forces[5] and smugglers.”

Claims by the EU that its training activities would have a “substantial focus on human rights and international law” and would “enhance protection of and respect for human rights” must be seen as frankly insincere. Other EU initiatives include ‘processing centres’ in key transit countries such as Niger.

Last month, the EU issued a press release celebrating the fact that asylum applications in the EU were “down by 43% in 2017”. 2017 did not see the end of war or poverty; people still want to flee to Europe. This reduction is the result of the EU effectively pushing its borders back and back. Migrant rights activist, Philippe Wannesson, quotes the EU Commissioner’s statement in its press release:

The EU will continue to be the continent of solidarity, of openness and tolerance” and responds: “Yes, it’s by paying Libyan coastguards to intercept at sea those people who want to ask us for hospitality and asylum and sending them back into slavery and torture that we will continue to be “the continent of solidarity, openness and tolerance”.[6]

 Humanitarian volunteers

Against the failure of the EU and its Member States to respond to the refugee crisis with an emphasis on the value of human life and shared humanity, civil society across Europe has sought to uphold these values and act upon them. Humanitarian volunteers were already well at work when the image of three-year old refugee, Alan Kurdi, drowned along with his mother and five-year old brother and washed up on a beach near Bodrum – and following images of young children drowned off the Libyan coast near Zuwarah[7] – put the media spotlight on the crisis at the borders. Eric Kempson and his family had been helping people from boats on the shores of Lesvos before the later proliferation of voluntary humanitarian groups in the area.[8]

It is impossible to give a full list of civil society humanitarian actions. A few examples follow. During a temporary suspension of normal immigration control arrangements between Hungary, Austria and Germany, people lined the routes where Syrians and others were arriving to hand out food and drink.[9] All across Europe – in Ireland through Cork-Calais Refugee Solidarity – voluntary groups collected and shipped donations of tents, clothes and medical supplies to migrants stopped by borders from Calais to Lesbos. Voluntary doctors and, to give some dignity to the dead, grave-diggers, temporarily gave up their normal life to work in these makeshift, transit camps.

People also opened up their homes to refugees who had managed to make it to Europe: in the UK, this was largely organized by the civil society group, “Refugees At Home”, who documented last month having hosted 544 guests across 1,006 placements from 54 countries in total. In Ireland, similar work matching voluntary host accommodation providers with refugees and asylum-seekers is being carried out by the group “Home from Home – Ireland”. Refugees Welcome and community groups, such as, locally, Sligo Global Kitchen and Welcome to Roscommon, were set up opposing barriers between “them” and “us”, providing hospitality.

Remarkable among all these efforts has been the provision of search-and-rescue services in the Mediterranean by ordinary people who saw the loss of human life and decided to intervene. Only a few miles from here, West Belfast musician, Joby Fox, went to Lesbos to volunteer offering humanitarian assistance and realized that, to prevent deaths at sea, a boat was needed. The boat came in the form of a €32,000 lifeboat donated by British artist Jake Chapman. Joby has testified that lives were saved literally metres from the shore, in the dark, amidst panic and rocks, stating at that time:

“We’ve been using a human chain to reach the people who fall in the water, but it’s treacherous for everyone. It’s freezing, frightening and very dangerous. So having this boat will make all the difference.”

Since February 2016, Refugee Rescue, using their boat, “Mo Chara”, have rescued over 6,000 individuals risking their lives in the short stretch between Turkey and Lesbos where there are dangerous rocks, shallows and the people who make it to land are often deserted in inaccessible locations. They continue to call for volunteers.

Culture of criminalisation

It is well-documented by now that the EU response to such civil society actions has not been positive. Those acting in solidarity with migrants have been faced with criminalization, with the Institute of Race Relations reviewing such cases in its report, “Humanitarianism: the unacceptable face of solidarity”.

These range from prosecution of Danish and Spanish lifeguards who rescue refugees through to a former children’s ombudsman and her spouse being charged under anti-trafficking provisions for the assistance they provided to a Syrian family, through to the criminalization of a French olive farmer for the help he has offered to migrants on the Italian-French border.[10] Combined with bulldozing of migrant encampments in Calais, documented by South African artist, Gideon Mendel, in his forensic art work, ‘Dzhangal’, and Ventimiglia, the mayors in those locations sought to introduce orders criminalizing unauthorized distribution of food and drink to refugees. In some cases, such laws were overturned, however, the developing pattern remains clear:

“a wider political culture of criminalisation whereby volunteers attempting to fill the gaps in state provision are stigmatised and criminalised for providing food, shelter and clean water to migrants in informal encampments”.

With those assisting the “sans papiers” facing harassment by the authorities and criminalization, the words of Pastor Niemoller should surely be ringing in our ears.

'The Agency'

Such prevention of solidarity and humanitarianism has been targeted, in particular, at search-and-rescue volunteers: there have been “extraordinary attempts to bully and de-legitimise NGO search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean”. Such bullying has been carried out by the EU entity, “Frontex” or “the Agency”. Again, in the case of Frontex, despite many human rights concerns voiced against it,[11] the EU has decided to beef-up the Agency, its staff having grown by a third and likely to double again by 2020. Civil society group Frontexit notes:

“Such reinforcement of capacities of an EU agency is unprecedented and turns a complete blind eye to a number of human rights violations, although [these have] been largely documented by non-governmental organisations as well as by official bodies”.

Unprecedented, too, are the new legal powers of the EU Agency to assess the “vulnerability” of Member States’ borders and to introduce punitive measures where such States are non-compliant with Agency recommendations to secure their borders.[12] This astonishing legal move is in the detail of one of hundreds of EU Regulations. Through this regulation, Member States are substantially giving away the power of their people to determine national borders to an EU body, and each Member State is consenting to increased EU control of its border arrangements if it allows its borders to be too “vulnerable” to migrants. It provides for the use of force with “service weapons, ammunition and equipment” and provides detailed provisions on “forced return” operations, including the forced return of children. The effects of this law, now in force, are certain to be less humanitarian, more coercive – it is the kind of law far right-wing groups would clamour for.

Artists respond

What, finally, is the scope for artists to respond to the refugee crisis? How does art act as a catalyst to encourage hope for the future and the use of our imagination to change conditions for humans at the border, for all of us?

Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, conjectures that the flow of human migration ultimately may not be held back. He says,

“Building a dam does not address the source of the flow – it would need to be built higher and higher, eventually holding back a massive volume. If a powerful flood were to occur, it could wipe out everything in its path.”

In Europe, we saw a glimpse of the dam bursting when border control arrangements were, exceptionally, suspended by Austria and Germany in September 2015, as the number of refugees could not be contained outside.

However, this situation did not lead to any lasting, positive change in the relationship between humans and borders. People remained stuck in temporary transit camps, in worsening conditions, all over Europe. There was quickly a return to border controls and these were controlled more aggressively, for example, by the detention of over 700 “border crossing helpers” around the German-Austrian border in October of the same year. Many refugees also find themselves in camps across Europe. As Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, looking back to the Holocaust, comments:

“We should not forget that the first camps were built in Europe as spaces for controlling refugees, and that the succession of internment camps-concentration camps-extermination camps represents a perfectly real filiation.”

But at a time when the EU is turning away from international human rights commitments and restricting humanitarianism to assert border controls at almost any cost, what scope is there for art to be engaged with the struggle for human rights and more humane values?

How can artists show their solidarity with those at the borders? How can art assist us to affirm hospitality, solidarity with migrants and shared humanity? What difficulties does art encounter when doing these things?

Technologies are used both to restrict and to enable human movement. How important are technology and technological advances in the making of art?

Human life is more connected and governed by technology than ever before. British artist, James Bridle, discussing his digital installation mapping the sentiment of news stories on the refugee crisis, “Wayfinding”, writes:

“On the ferries, those in transit share information about which border points are open, which countries are (relatively) friendly, where to buy bus tickets – information often passed back from those who have already gone ahead, via Whatsapp messages and Facebook groups.”

When supported by real-life solidarities, such technology can be life-saving: recall the seven-year old boy smuggled in a sealed lorry from Calais to the UK whose text to a Calais Jungle volunteer who was in New York at the time saying “no oksijan” enabled her to act to save his life. Many others have died because being linked up to Whatsapp or Facebook cannot prevent a shipwreck when there is no human assistance at sea, but instead multi-million-euro state-operated border control machinery.

The EU, then, has named its latest maritime border control mission Themis, after the goddess personifying fairness, law, natural law. For the EU to use this name for the entity it uses to deter, repress and exclude refugees at sea, seems utterly cynical. Yet it is the case that the existence of this entity and its powers are conditional on the “social contract” between EU Member States and their consent to participating in the EU’s project to fortify its borders.

Some committed humanitarians raise valid concerns that the outburst of humanitarianism by civil society has been ignorant of, or incapable of changing, the political structures in which the disregard of human life at borders is embedded. Documentary photographer, Roman Kutzowitz, says of volunteer SAR missions in the Mediterranean:

“Humanitarian intervention here is an IT-nerd from Cologne fixing the wiring onboard Sea Watch 3, 12 miles off the coast of Libya […] the lifeguard from Euskal Herria who tends to torture wounds onboard the Lifeline. But too few exercise civil disobedience, too few recognize the interconnectedness of the privileged western life and the plight of the subaltern […] Human Rights now merely serve the EU image-politics. Because cycles of capital, weapons, and vegetables must keep spinning! […] The flows of weapons, the extraction of resources abroad, and extortive IMF contracts are connected to migratory crises, yet we continue to externalize and shrug off responsibility.”

Can art help us to see more clearly the political structures which lead to inhumanity, including violence towards those at the borders and human rights defenders?

Natasha Walter, founder of the UK solidarity organization, Women for Refugee Women, draws her own conclusion:

“while it is so tempting – and often so necessary – to keep within the limits of the real in our politics, to keep plugging away at what will make things a tiny bit better here and now, we also need to keep flexing that muscle called hope. In times when inspiration seems to be running dry, we need to dip into the reservoir of the imagination.”[13]



This paper was originally presented at the Turbulence symposium on March 8, 2018, as part of the education programme for the contemporary exhibition Turbulence, December 2017 - April 2018 at The Model, Sligo, Ireland.

The author wishes to thank Syd Bolton, Lawyer, Co-Convener of the Last Rights Project (, for reading and commenting on an initial draft of this paper.

Notes and references

[1] This is the term the media has often used to describe the arrivals of the last few years, however, it would better be called the crisis at the borders or the crisis of human rights. Since presentation of this paper but before its publication, the Refugee Law Initiative has published a blog article discussing Europe's so-called 'refugee crisis' and asking questions as to the meaning of words and the makings of a crisis.

[2] For minimum estimates of monthly deaths since 2014, see ‘Missing Migrants’, IOM. 

[3] Amnesty International noted in its most recent country human rights report on Turkey “violations of human rights by security forces continued with impunity, especially in the predominantly Kurdish southeast”.

[4]A Syrian family housed, at the time of writing, in Mosney direct provision centre in County Meath told the author of this paper that they had spent several months in a tent in a makeshift camp in Greece and the young children recalled with horror trying to keep rats out of their tent.

[5]Dearden, L., ‘Libyan coast guard ‘opens fire’ during refugee rescue as deaths in Mediterranean Sea pass record 1,500’, The Independent, 24 May 2017.

[6] Author’s translation.

[7] Author’s poem on this atrocity, originally read aloud at a public protest outside the European Commission offices in Belfast: ‘To Europe’, Writers For Calais Refugees.

[8] See: ‘The British family helping thousands of refugees on Lesbos’, Channel 4 News, 17 September 2015.

[9] See, for example: MEE Staff, ‘Video shows Austrians offering food and water to refugees on a packed train’, Middle East Eye, 1 September 2015.

[10] See: Fekete, L., Webber, F. and Edmond-Pettitt, A., ‘Humanitarianism: the unacceptable face of solidarity’, Institute of Race Relations, 2017. This report gives more details on these cases and many others, with analysis. See also: Marlowe, L., ‘French farmer convicted of helping migrants to cross border’, The Irish Times, 10 February 2017.

[11] See Statewatch online for documentation of some of these concerns. Available:

[12] Regulation (EU) 2016/1624 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 September 2016

[13] Quoted in The Guardian newspaper on 3 February 2018.


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