A ship chartered by Defend Europe, a group of far-right activists, is about to set sail across the Mediterranean to disrupt the search and rescue operations of charities which are saving the lives of migrants making the world’s most perilous journey – the route from Libya to Italy.
The intervention of the anti-immigrant, so-called “identitarians” who are heading for Sicily to make political capital out of human misery is not only misguided but threatens to cost lives.
My concern is all the more acute because Save the Children, of which I’m chief executive in the UK, operates one of the vessels that Defend Europe has set out to confront. The crew of our ship, the Vos Hestia, which is based in the Sicilian port of Catania, have helped to save 7,090 lives since the start of the year, including 1,134 children.
The youngest to have been rescued so far was a 15-month-old girl called Blessing who was hauled out of a sinking dinghy. Tragically, her mother drowned – one of more than 7,000 who have died on such journeys in the central Mediterranean in the last two years.
In the eyes of Defend Europe we are part of the problem. The Independent quoted the group as saying it intended to “monitor” our actions because charities had facilitated human trafficking by effectively ferrying migrants to Italy.
Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, who spent time with the group, took to social media to criticise our work. She tweeted, ‘These rescue boats are as easy to hail as an Uber after a big night out in Birmingham’ and tracked the movement of our boat on her feed – implying that our crew purposefully waited in the water to pick up migrants.
What she failed to take into account was that our ship has no direct radio contact with migrants’ boats. We move either when our crew spot a stricken vessel or when we are ordered into action by the Italian coastguard.
A statement on the Defend Europe’s website declares that picking up migrants off the Libyan coast presents a “pull-factor”, encouraging people to chance the treacherous Mediterranean voyage and flood into Europe. The self-styled maritime crusaders want to “stop the boats” and cooperate with the Libyan coastguard to send people “back to Africa”.
These arguments are not confined to the assorted racists and extreme right wingers gathered under the Defend Europe banner. The idea that search and rescue operations create a “pull factor” is common currency across many European governments. Indeed, it helps to explain why Italy gets so little support from other countries to cope with the influx of migrants, which is approaching 100,000 this year alone.
So, does the “pull factor” argument bear scrutiny? Are we encouraging vulnerable migrants to take risks they would otherwise avoid? At a migrant reception centre in Rome I met Saimon, a 16 year-old Eritrean boy. He had been rescued at sea in May after a vessel crammed with 800 migrants capsized. More than 30 people drowned.
Saimon’s brush with death was the culmination of a journey he had started almost a year earlier. Having been forcibly conscripted for life into Eritrea’s military, he fled across the border to Sudan. After being imprisoned for three months and held to ransom by local police, he eventually made it to Khartoum, the capital.
Saimon then paid traffickers for the journey to Italy. He barely survived a 15-day crossing of the Sahara and saw migrants killed by an armed militia in Libya. Finally, he was forced at gunpoint on to the boat that was to sink.
Asked whether he would have boarded voluntarily in spite of the risks, Saimon had a simple answer: “What choice did I have?” Like every other migrant I spoke to, he was totally unaware that any search and rescue operation was in place should his boat run into trouble.
Every migrant I met had a version of Saiman’s story. They had been driven by fear, poverty and desperation to make the perilous journey. Not one of them factored charity search and rescue vessels into their risk equations for a very simple reason: they knew nothing about these ships.
It turns out that kids like Saimon have a better grasp of risk than the European governments worrying about “pull factors”. Researchers at Oxford University examined whether the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean fell when the EU cut back search and rescue operations in 2014. The data shows the decision had no effect on numbers. Only one thing changed - and that was the number of bodies washing up on beaches in Libya and southern Italy.
All of which brings us back to Defend Europe. More than 2,207 migrants have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean so far in 2017. Without the heroic efforts of Italian coastguards and the charity ships’ crews they direct, that figure would be far, far higher.
Interfering with the search and rescue operations won’t end migration, but it will amplify the lethal dangers facing children such as Blessing. As for forcibly returning children like Saiman to Libya, with the prospect of incarceration and torture, this is a means of destroying lives, not a manifesto for tackling complex migration problems.
Ultimately, what is playing out off the coast of Libya is a clash of values. The Italian coast guard and the charity crews represent the best of European values. They are driven by compassion, empathy and a concern to save lives.
Defend Europe is defending a vision based on fear, hate and a callous disregard for the lives of men, women and children who are guilty of nothing more than escaping desperate circumstances.
Our mission is simple: to save lives. Rest assured, these people will not disrupt our operations.
Kevin Watkins is chief executive of Save the Children UK
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