110 Mediterranean Deaths In Three Days: Is Europe Committing An (In)act Of War?

European authorities’ inaction is starting to look like dirty battle tactics at the world’s deadliest sea border.

Between November 10th and 12th, four separate shipwrecks in the crossing between Libya and Italy claimed over 110 lives. In the largest of the shipwrecks, a boat of reportedly 120 people capsized, leaving 47 survivors and over 70 bodies floating off the Libyan coast. In another shipwreck, a six-month-old child was one of the casualties. In the week prior, almost 1,000 people were forcibly returned from the Mediterranean to Libya, an active warzone.

Non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies have hotly criticized Frontex, the European Border and Coastguard Agency, for claiming on November 11th that they were “committed to saving lives at sea in close cooperation with all operational actors.” Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)’s humanitarian affairs advisor, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, called deaths in the Mediterranean the “inevitable outcome of [the EU’s] murderous policies of non-assistance and the active blocking of non-governmental organization (N.G.O.) rescue ships.” In August, the International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.) stated, “Without a dedicated, E.U.-led search and rescue operation and disembarkation mechanism, more lives will be lost in the Mediterranean.”

Despite international law committing all states to assist those in distress at sea, a variety of tactics are used to disincentivize movement across the Mediterranean, with deadly consequences. Italian authorities have prevented all but one N.G.O. search-and-rescue boat from leaving port with insufficient explanation, such as that there were too many life jackets on board, or insufficient sewage systems for crew. Upon receiving a distress call from 108 people without life jackets in a boat at midday, Maltese authorities delayed the deployment of rescue efforts until the next morning. In August, a commercial ship which picked up hundreds of people in distress had to wait over three weeks to be offered safe port to disembark those rescued.

While violently inactive on the northern side of the border, the European Union is increasingly proactive in supporting the forced return of migrants to Libya, despite several explicit statements from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and I.O.M. that this should not be done. Besides the risk of sending vulnerable individuals back into an active warzone, migrants are particularly maltreated in Libya. Amnesty International has recorded several human rights abuses against migrants and refugees, including unlawful killings; enforced disappearances; torture and other ill-treatment; rape and other sexual violence; arbitrary detention; and forced labour and exploitation at the hands of state and non-state actors in a climate of near-total impunity. The E.U. continues to provide equipment, training, and coordination to the Libyan Coastguard, facilitating 60,000 forced returns since 2016. Only 5,709 individuals have been evacuated to receiving states officially from Libya since 2017.

Since last January, over 900 civilians have died in the Mediterranean. To give context, 483 civilians died in the active conflict in Libya between June 2019 and June 2020. While the actions of Libyan and European authorities are not the same as acts of open military confrontation, the willingness to let people die (and in some cases in Libya, to kill them) to prevent their arrival in European or Libyan territory shows that the tens of thousands of humans travelling across North Africa towards Europe are treated, not as a demographic phenomenon, but as an invasion. Even if the Mediterranean were really a place of war, with people who are travelling on one side and the E.U. and Libya on the other, both sides would be obliged by international humanitarian law to allow humanitarian access to “the enemy.” The fact that humanitarian access is restricted to one single boat in the Mediterranean shows that this is not only a war – it’s a dirty one.

Sarah McArthur