Can Europe Make It?

Spectral vessels

Powerful institutional agendas have acted to bolster the ‘ghost ship’ obsession. Such symbolism renders the specificities of Mediterranean migration opaque.

Theodore Baird Thomas Spijkerboer Paolo Cuttitta
17 January 2015
Boat cemetery, Lampedusa. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.

Boat cemetery, Lampedusa. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.Over the past few weeks, three cargo ships transporting migrants to Italy were abandoned by their crews with the engines still running. They were directed towards Italian coasts and would have crashed there if the coast guard had not intervened to rescue the migrants. While the first went almost unnoticed, the other two – the Ezadeen and the Blue Sky M – made headlines worldwide. The cargoes were labeled as ‘ghost ships’, and the international press readily accepted the notion that abandoned ships constitute a new trend in the history of boat migration. This led to moral indignation and outrage over the fates of large groups of migrants at sea.

Haunting symbolism

Even if the specific phenomenon of ships left abandoned with their engines running should emerge as a new trend, the larger phenomenon of abandoned migrant boats is not new, nor is public moral outrage over boat migration. In present parlance, a ghost ship is a migrant smuggling boat which is intentionally abandoned by its crew at sea, putting the lives of migrants at risk and forcing other (merchant or coast guard) vessels to rescue the people on board. In fact, migrants have often been abandoned at sea by their smugglers in the past. The first case of a large ship being abandoned dates back to 2001, when a ship with some 900 migrants was left off the French coast. The last one occurred when a Turkish cargo was left adrift with around 700 Syrian refugees on board in November 2014.

Moreover, smugglers often carry migrants with a large ‘mother ship’ and abandon them after pushing them onto a smaller vessel. Much more frequently, small fishing boats and dinghies loaded with migrants are not given enough fuel for the sea crossing. Are the new tactics more infamous than simply leaving boats adrift? Are they more infamous than not giving enough fuel for a dinghy to cross the Strait of Sicily? Quite possibly, a cargo abandoned close to Italian coast will be more likely to be rescued than a dinghy running out of fuel in the middle of (maritime) nowhere.

Furthermore, many migrant boats, especially the small ones, are not driven by smugglers but by migrants themselves, most of whom only accept to take the lead of the journey because they are rewarded with free passage to Europe, which they would not be able to pay otherwise. This seems to be the case even with the helmsman of the Blue Sky M. He never really abandoned the ship; he was just hiding among the other passengers to avoid detention, and he was a refugee as well in the end. If this were the case also for the other two most recent and ‘outrageous’ ghost ships (which Italian authorities have not been able to ascertain so far), the incidents would be far less ‘outrageous’ then they may appear to be at first glance.

The symbol of the ‘ghost ship’ is invoked to conjure folkloric and mythological imagery, and suggests that its cargo is deeply threatening. Such a move represents migration routes and trajectories as somehow mysterious, without corporeal origin: an image of people set adrift without history or narrative. The invocation of the ‘ghost ship’ thus renders the specificities of Mediterranean migration opaque, clouds over history, and ignores explanations or causes of boat migration. Mediterranean boat migration stems from a complex combination of factors including conflict, persecution, global inequality, border surveillance, lack of legal alternative routes, demographic factors, and geopolitical shifts in Europe and the region. To gloss over the complex history of migration and the causes and explanations of migration in the Mediterranean only serves to skew the public debate.

Institutional agendas

The idea of a ‘ghost ship trend’ has been pushed by important international organizations, whose (diverging) institutional agendas are served by the notion. But the focus on this ‘new trend’ stands in the way of addressing Europe’s actual moral and legal dilemmas over migrants’ right to life versus security and surveillance – dilemmas which have been heightened and re-articulated since the recent Paris attacks.

The notion that ‘ghost ships’ constitute a new phenomenon has been spread actively by three organizations with differing institutional mandates and agendas. The International Organization for Migration (predominantly funded on a project basis by western governments) has asked for more attention, most notably in a report via its Italian office which culminates in an appeal by the IOM Director General for an international task force to combat human smuggling, modelled on the task force combating Somali pirates.

The EU border agency Frontex has limited itself to the circulation of reports about ‘ghost ships’. In light of its general policy objectives, it can reasonably be assumed to have a border control agenda similar to the one formulated by IOM. EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopolous immediately condemned the “ruthless criminal organisations” involved, without however providing any evidence that the people driving the boat were either criminal or organized and not refugees themselves. The current outcry from European politicians over boat migration is not new, and typically resembles previous condemnation by previous leaders. Take for example Jacques Chirac in 2001, claiming that an abandoned migrant boat “highlights the total absence of morals of those who traffic in human misery.”

The UN refugee agency UNHCR refers to a “worrying new trend”, while calling on European governments to step up rescue operations at sea, and “to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages”. In this way, UNHCR seizes the ‘ghost ship trend’ for a different aim than IOM and the EU. Instead of calling to step up border control by combating smuggling, it advocates rescue at sea and admitting more Syrian refugees to Europe. The latter request is based on the fact that the Levantine countries are hosting many more Syrians than the whole of Europe, and that Asia and Africa host more than 90 percent of the world’s refugee population. Why should Europe keep its doors closed?

However, the UNHCR position is problematic because it is not only refugees, or those who would claim to be refugees, who are drowning. Although UNHCR does not have the same institutional mandate or obligations as IOM and Frontex, its appeal for humanitarian corridors for refugees has led to arguments for external processing.

The notion of a ‘ghost ship trend’ is being pushed by international organizations to justify institutional mandates. These organizations have been instrumental in making a ‘trend’ out of occurrences which may also be seen as isolated incidents, or as new examples of something far older, that has been in existence for over a decade already. Two out of the three organizations have been quite explicit about the policy aims they have with the identification of this ‘trend’, and the European Parliament is urging the Commission forward on proposals on migration legislation.

The use of the term ‘ghost ships’ is too fanciful to have real meaning, and obscures the important debate Europe is having at the moment: rethinking the European system of asylum, immigration, border surveillance, and humanitarian assistance to include robust explanations for boat migration and a tailored legal and institutional response. Boat migration and human smuggling is an epiphenomenon: focusing on these two aspects alone sidesteps the broader issue of regional migration and a public understanding of the underlying causes of displacement. Focusing only on ‘ghost ships’ does not make much sense without a public understanding of the regional causes and effects of migration. By focusing on the coincidental form migration has taken in certain cases over the past few weeks, the public debate over migration has emerged as skewed, unreflective and misdirected.

Just as migrants are abandoned every day to their fate by smugglers in small, unseaworthy vessels, migrants are also abandoned every day to their fate by the border policies of European countries. If we are to be publicly outraged over the suffering that occurs in the context of boat migration, we must express equal moral shock at the European policies which create the market for smuggling in which so many migrants die.

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