»The Radical Transformation of Search & Rescue Activism« – An Insider Retrospective

11 Minutes
Contemporary Struggles, Direct Action & Civil Disobedience, Grassroots Movement Building
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At their core, Search and Rescue NGOs aim to save lives that would otherwise have been lost to the unrelenting cruelness of the European border. In doing so they lift the veil that cloaks European responsibility for the violence at its borders.


The Central Mediterranean Sea as a Critical Battleground  of European Border Politics

State actors like Frontex or the European Commission depict deaths and violence at the border as humanitarian emergencies. In his introductory remarks for the launch of Operation Sophia, Commissioner Avramopoulos expressed “deep sorrow and compassion for the passing at sea of the innocent victims” and that “even one more life lost is one too many. So, the situation in the Mediterranean has to change now. We have to take action now. We will take action now”.

This strategy conceals the underlying structural deficiency of EU border design: “emergencies do not last two decades. The political priorities, active policies, and structural negligence that perpetuate them as such do” [1]. For decades the European states have followed a set of policies to intercept, contain and repatriate. One of the most egregious examples of these policies is the  funding and equipping of the so-called ‚Libyan Coast Guard‘ (LCG). People are intercepted by the LCG to be returned to camps where thousands disappear, are forced into slavery, or are raped or suffer other gross violations. 

European states are limited in their actions at the border by democratic norms and institutions such as legal treaties, a free and critical press, and the will of the electorate. This dynamic creates a need to cloak violent, externalized migration management tactics in secrecy and humanitarian language: “outsourcing migration-management allows liberal governments and institutions to eschew the constraints placed upon them by the very liberal democratic norms they are trying to circumvent” [2].

Search and Rescue NGOs and the images they communicate cut through this mirage: Seeing a mother cry out for her baby that slipped from her hands as their boat capsized, forces the public to recognise the harmful and violent treatment of migrants and refugees. The suffering at Europes’ borders highlights the growing fissure between the myth Europeans tell about themselves – envisioning their history and place in the world as a force for good and democratisation – and the dark realities of European border politics, its rootedness in institutional racism, and neocolonialism.

Since 2017 European states, especially Italy, have pursued a variety of aggressive strategies to stop civil rescue NGOs from operating. These strategies include legal actions against NGOs and their crew members, outright criminalisation under Matteo Salvini, former minister of interior of Italy, as well more subtle but highly effective bureaucratic means to detain ships upon entering an Italian harbour. All in all this has contributed to a significant drop in effective civil search and rescue assets in the Mediterranean.

Yet civil rescue NGOs have shown remarkable resilience, adapting to government strategies and maintaining their presence in the central Mediterranean Sea while struggling with evolving methods of state repression, as well as grappling with the internal contradictions of their work. Their work raises two questions: Firstly, can a dissent against state violence be formulated from within humanitarian reasoning? And secondly, what is so dangerous about their work that European states use such force to stop it?


The Institutional Origins of European Border Violence

To answer these questions we must take a step back and acknowledge the fundamental truth at the heart of this crisis: The deaths and the violence at European borders are no accidents or humanitarian disasters. They are a core feature of EU politics, the consequences of decades of policy decisions and centuries of oppression. The central belief at the heart of EU border politics is that the “most effective way to limit asylum-seekers [is] to prevent them from arriving in Europe in the first place” [3]. Mediterranean border politics is only one facet of the broader EU strategy to deter migration which involves deployment of border externalisation strategies and the implementation of institutional and legal barriers to migrants and potential asylum seekers beyond the state’s own territory [4].

The EU visa regime is not only central to the European politics of deterrence, it is also a deeply racist institution. It solidifies the borders that European colonialists drew across the African continent. It subjects individuals from certain national origins, predominantly from the Global South, to precarious and illegalized journeys, while allowing safe and legal channels for those with nationalities that are allowed access to visas. These policies created fortified “frontiers of poverty“ [5] where “gradients of wealth and poverty, citizenship and non citizenship appear especially sharply” [6]. In the absence of safe transit routes the crossing of these borders becomes a matter of life and death.

Therefore we need to view the current crisis “in the context of Europe’s constitutive history of empire, colonial conquest, and transatlantic slavery” [7]. The crisis in the Mediterranean is not a moment of exception, it is Europe’s latest violent encounter with the Global South. Ida Danewid (2017) contrasts the term ‘black Mediterranean’ with the imagined benevolence of Europe: For centuries the ‘black Mediterranean’ has been a space of continuous suffering for black people. This fact must be at the heart of any discussion on European borders or else it risks to perpetuate a “modern version of white abolitionism, which, aims ‘at the salvation of the rescuer, not the rescued’” [8].


Changing the Conversation: Humanitarianism vs. Political Activism

For this reason, civil rescue NGOs have struggled to find a consistent position on humanitarianism and their position vis-a-vis politics. Actors such as Sea-Watch from the beginning have embraced an activist standpoint, rooting their work in established struggles for freedom of movement which peaked in the 2015 “summer of migration”. Established humanitarian actors such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have significantly moved on the issue, taking a more combative stance against European border politics as European governments ramped up repressive measures.

Still in the years 2015 - 2017 the messaging by NGOs was decidedly humanitarian. One argument for this humanitarian positioning was to stay clear from politics, by arguing that the need to save lives should transcend politics. That not letting people drown is a shared understanding of purported European values. The humanitarian argument is straightforward: International law requires people to be brought to a place of safety. Taking people back to a place that is internationally recognised as unsafe, violates international law and puts their lives in danger. Therefore people who are rescued in international waters must be brought to Europe to ensure their safety and human rights.

The criminalisation of civil rescue NGOs however shows the limitations of this approach. Humanitarian responses at European borders can only exist within the confines of the politically desirable – the reduction of arrivals to Europe at all costs. The best possible outcome from within a humanitarian frame is the alleviation of the worst violent excesses of European borders.

However, the criminalisation of civil rescue NGOs also reveals the limits of state power and the dimension of political resistance employed on the high sea:

At the time of writing this article, most rescue ships are barred from leaving port to engage in rescue activities. Yet the methods that are employed by states are opaque and  lack efficiency: Civil rescue NGOs operate in international waters, in a space in which the European states have less direct power, therefore they can resist and evade state power in ways foreign to the modus operandi of most NGOs. Direct criminalisation à la Salvini has proved to be a potent rallying (and fundraising) cry for civil rescue NGOs and has since been mostly abandoned. 

Lately, the Italian government has resorted to bureaucratic measures of obstructing rescue such as alleging minor deficiencies after subjecting NGO ships to scrupulous controls after every port call. This constant barrage while no doubt tiring for the NGOs has so far only temporarily managed to stop rescue ships from re-entering the Central Mediterranean Sea. Contrast this with the direct assertion of power of European governments within their own territory as evidenced by the latest expulsions of humanitarian workers, activists and journalists from Greeces’ new Moria camp.

Not allowing racialized and illegalized people into European territory is key to European migration policy. The EU has built a multi-billion bordering infrastructure that spans the globe in pursuit of this goal. In this system the ability to control its borders, that is to enforce the filtering capacity of its borders by violent and illegal means if necessary, serves as a justification of the governments as a whole. Civil rescue NGOs purposefully undermine this system by forcing states to accept people into their territory whom they have already deemed expendable. Their resistance to the violence of the EU borders is thus seen not as a nuisance but as a fundamental challenge to state authority. In its essence, Search and Rescue is therefore an act of political resistance against state power. That is why it has faced such fierce opposition.


Connecting the Struggles: From the Sea to the City

The unwillingness of European states to transcend the current regime of deterrence, and the ongoing criminalisation of rescue has forced activists to pursue new strategies. Traditionally rescue NGOs have advocated for safe and legal channels for migration because they are a matter of safety, dignity and fundamental human rights. But most importantly they are also a stepping stone towards racial justice in the context of the existing racist visa regime.

Recent years have seen a concerted effort to focus on municipalities and cities as spaces for new ideas and practices of transnational solidarity: Prominent activists have floated the possibility of a European Fund for Municipalities to welcome refugees that disrupts the inability of European institutions to take concrete actions to ensure safe passage. The Seebrücke movement, a social movement founded in June 2018 focused on creating new citizen-led pathways into Europe, was able to divert popular outrage about the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean into its "Safe Harbour“ campaign and mobilise mass demonstrations in Germany and Europe. More than 200 German cities and municipalities have declared themselves as safe harbours.

Focussing on local politics has proven to be a powerful tool as it allows for more realistic and tangible discussion about the practicalities of admission and integration of newcomers. On the other hand it allows for democratically elected decision-makers such as mayors to exert pressure on national politics. However, it has not yet created enough leverage to influence actual change. Efforts to localise solidarity have been blocked by the German Ministry of the Interior which is in the hands of the conservative government party.

Nonetheless, these movements show us the path forward by linking the suffering in the Mediterranean to political action at home. The maintenance of the unjust, violent and unequal European border regime relies on institutional design, it is “ambitious, laborious, and resilient administrative, political, and ideological work.“ [9]. A system like that will not be moved by advocacy campaigns or media pressure. The devastating unrelentingly cruel life-ending machine of the European border must be dismantled by citizens of Europe who accept an active and combative role in reshaping the politics of Europe towards transnational solidarity. There are three lessons to be learnt from the struggles of civil rescue NGOs and social movements like Seebrücke:

  1. They must formulate a positive vision of Europe as an open political space based on radical egalitarianism.
  2. They need to develop narratives which place the crisis in the Mediterranean as part of a wider anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle.
  3. They must create alternatives like local admission of newcomers and build solid political coalitions to support them.

In this, civil rescue NGOs will continue to play an important role. To resist state violence and continue to save lives that would otherwise be lost to Europes’ borders.

  • 1.Albahari, M. (2015) Crimes of peace : Mediterranean migrations at the world’s deadliest border. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 203.
  • 2.Pallister-Wilkins, P. (2011) ‘Searching for accountability in EU migration-management practices’, OpenDemocracy [online] available from [12 August 2018], p. 3.
  • 3.Loescher, G. (2001) The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 236.
  • 4.Bialasiewicz, L. (2012) ‘Off-shoring and Out-sourcing the Borders of EUrope: Libya and EU Border Work in the Mediterranean’, Geopolitics, 17(4), pp. 843–866.
  • 5.Freudenstein, R. (2000) ‘Río Odra, Río Buh: Poland, Germany, and the Borders of Twenty- First-Century Europe’, in Andreas, P. and Snyder, T. (eds) The Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in North America and Europe. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 173–184.
  • 6.Walters, W. (2011) ‘Foucault and Frontiers: Notes on the Birth of the Humanitarian Border, in Bröckling, U., Krasmann, S., and Lemke, T. (eds) Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges. New York: Routledge, New York: Routledge, pp. 138–164.
  • 7.Danewid, I. (2017) ‘White innocence in the Black Mediterranean: hospitality and the erasure of history’, Third World Quarterly, 38(7), pp. 1674–1689.
  • 8.Danewid, I. (2017) ‘White innocence in the Black Mediterranean: hospitality and the erasure of history’, Third World Quarterly, 38(7), p. 1681.
  • About the contributor

    Titus Molkenbur
    Founding Member of the Sea Rescue Organisation Jugend Rettet & Migration Researcher

    Titus Molkenbur is a founding member of Jugend Rettet, a German NGO dedicated to rescuing lives at sea. With their vessel the IUVENTA, they rescued more than 14.000 people in the Central Mediterranean Sea before the vessel was seized by Italian authorities on dubious legal charges. In 2020 the life-saving work of their crew was recognized with the Amnesty International Human Rights Award. In addition to his activist work Titus holds a Master’s degree in Migration, Mobility and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).