Malta’s fatal strategies to counter the growing number of refugees are part of the EU’s systematic racism and violent border regime.
Valeria Alice Colombo is an Italian Doctor and Crew member on Open Arms, Alan Kurdi and Sea Watch 3. She is also a member of the journalistic collective Brush&Bow.
Cross-posted from Open Democracy
Racism is at the root of the migration policies through which the EU systematically avoids sea rescue off the north African coast, leaving countless people to drown and die at sea, or to be sent back to civil war, arbitrary detention and torture.
Carola Rackete, the former captain of the Sea Watch 3 rescue ship, addressed similar words to those who believe that state racism is someone else’s problem, adding her voice to the thousands that have gathered up in these days of social rebellion in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Just as systematic racism is entrenched in the US police and prison system, we argue that Europe is no different when it comes to the racism and violence of border security against black lives of refugees and migrants trying to escape the hell of Libya among other places.
The central Mediterranean is one of the deadliest routes undertaken by asylum seekers attempting their way to Europe. In 2019, about fifteen thousand people reached Europe, while more than seven hundred lost their lives at sea. Just days ago, the news arrived that a boat carrying 22 people was found shipwrecked just off the Tunisian coast, with all its passengers currently missing, most likely drowned.
These numbers are low if compared to the 120.000 who landed in Italy alone in 2017. Such a considerable downturn is the outcome of an international strategy implemented by EU governments, with Italy at the forefront, aimed to bolster the bastions of the European fortress on the Mediterranean. By progressively withdrawing both governmental and non-governmental rescue assets at sea, border control is being outsourced to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard – de facto militias involved in the Libyan civil war – by providing them with equipment, as well as with technical and political support.
But the unstable situation on the Libyan shores, in the throes of an escalating civil conflict, together with the unreliability of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, allows boats to evade the patrol boats of the Libyan militias and reach Malta’s search and rescue zone anyway, where Malta’s authorities are responsible for the coordination of rescue operations.
Once on the island, Malta is left alone to deal with high numbers of asylum requests, as no redistributive agreement with the EU members is currently in place. The assumption that Malta can manage the proportions of the migration crisis of the central Mediterranean alone is simply ludicrous.
And this is why, Malta’s authorities are resolving to less orthodox methods to deal with the issue. Recent journalistic investigations led by Italian journalists at the newspaper Avvenire have revealed Malta’s illegal and secret strategies to counter the growing number of arrivals.
Between 10 and 13 April, four migrant ships contacted Alarm Phone, a volunteer-powered hotline constantly kept open for those in distress at sea. The four rafts had left from the Libyan coast but had no chance of crossing hundreds of miles of open water between Libya and Italy.
The route is technically impossible for overcrowded low-quality dinghies like the ones being used today by Libyan smugglers, and crucially, the fuel provision loaded on board is often insufficient. However, exactly on Easter day, two dinghies miraculously reached the Italian south coast. They had left Libya together, but had lost contact on the first night at sea. The first rubber boat, with 101 people on board, arrived in Pozzallo on Easter Sunday. The second boat, carrying 77 people, reached Capo Passero, the southeast point of the Sicilian mainland, the morning after.
But the central Mediterranean is not a place for miracles; and the investigations of Avvenire have since then revealed the inconvenient trick behind these miraculous events.
Based on direct testimonies of the asylum seekers on the first of the two boats, it became clear that both boats had separately ended up in Maltese waters. The first dinghy was intercepted by a patrol boat of the Maltese Armed Forces. Several of the people on the rubber boat had taken videos of the tragic scene: many of the migrants on board had thrown themselves at sea, despite not knowing how to swim, in order not to be taken back to Libya.
It was only when the outboard engine of the rubber boat broke down that the military desisted from threatening the pushback, and with everyone back on board, provided to the shipwrecked a new engine with enough fuel to continue the crossing for another 100 kilometres, straight to Italy.
Meanwhile, the day before the arrival of the second boat to Italy, the fisher trawler Dar Al Salam 1 had left La Valletta with no clear destination, disappearing from the tracking maritime charts soon after departure. A helicopter of the Armed Forces of Malta would guide the Dar Al Salam 1 and a second ship, the Tremar, to a boat of asylum seekers drifting in Maltese waters, having left the coast of Libya almost one week before.
Capt. Abdelrazek, master of the Tremar, will later declare to the NY Times that the two trawlers were instructed by Maltese authorities to intercept the refugee boat and take it back to Libya. The fifty-one survivors were then embarked on the Dar Al Salam 1 and brought to Tripoli in the morning of 15 April, together with the five corpses of their companions who had died of dehydration after five days abandoned at sea.
The investigation by Avvenire revealed that the Dar Al Salam 1 and the Tremar are part of a full-fledge covert fleet of fishing boats organized by the Maltese highest authorities to commit illegal pushbacks of migrant ships, a crime both according to international humanitarian law and to the Search and Rescue International Convention.
After the discovery of the secret agreements with Tripoli, Malta decided to openly negotiate a Memorandum with Libyan President Faez al Sarraj, signed by Prime Minister Robert Abela, recently investigated and dismissed on charges of illegal refoulement. From now on, the two countries cooperate to search and stop boats fleeing Libya, with the blessing of the EU allocated to Tripoli and despite the call of international organisations such as the IOM and UNHCR, repeating that Libya is not a safe port for anyone.
European governments fear migration, and consider people on the move a ‘threat’ to hosting countries, thereby fuelling a compulsion for increased border protection. Instead of investing in a humanitarian solution to the crisis, in December, the EU approved a budget of €10 billion allocated to the border agency Frontex. The same agency, which sends its sophisticated aircrafts to survey the distress cases in the Mediterranean, without any capacity –or intention– to rescue.
The European obsession with its borders is not only pushing the members of the EU to come up with illegal and unofficial solutions, such as the Maltese bootleg fleet of fishing trawlers, but it is also costing the EU a fortune, which could be better allocated for receiving the people escaping wars, misery and persecution, or be used as a potential vital future asset for the ageing economies of the continent.
The reason for the EU authorities’ rejection to saving lives at sea is racism: such a firm and constant failure to receive assistance has never been experienced by any white western sailor in distress. European authorities won’t be able to present themselves as resilient advocates of universal and fundamental universal human rights much longer, while black lives continue to drown at sea.