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Sea of Troubles

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In June, I joined the crew of the rescue ship Alan Kurdi. It was a cantankerous old brute of a boat, a former East German research vessel that now belongs to a small German nonprofit called Sea-Eye. “You are an eye on the sea,” the crew manager told us at our first briefing on board, “you are the eye of the world.” That was our mission for the voyage ahead: not only to witness but to act—to rescue as many people as we could from drowning in the central Mediterranean.

We knew that it would be an uncertain journey. Even as we set out, the captain could not tell us what port we might return to, or when we would be free to return. On its two previous missions, the ship had been stuck off the coast of Malta for more than a week while awaiting permission to disembark the rescued migrants sleeping on its deck. Other NGO crews have faced criminal charges, had their ships seized, and been refused permission to enter European harbors. The other side of the sea was even less friendly: The Libyan coast guard has threatened, boarded, and even shot at NGO ships.

In the end, we would rescue 109 people. In context the number seems small. Since the beginning of 2014, nearly 19,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Those are the ones we know of. Untallied others disappear without a trace. However much glamour its name still retains, the Mediterranean is now the deadliest border on Earth, a boundary between two worlds, one guarded for the rich, the other suffered by the poor. Its waters hide not only the bodies of thousands of missing migrants, but also the suffering they are running from: the torture camps and slave auctions of Libya, an entire economy of monetized pain subsidized by the European Union in the name of the rule of law. This is a story of that sea, and of what happens far from land when no one else is watching. It is a story of hope and extraordinary strength, but also of hypocrisies as deep and suffocating as the sea itself.

Since the beginning of 2014, nearly 19,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Untallied others disappear without a trace.

When I arrived in the small Spanish port of Burriana, NGO ships were again making headlines all over Europe. For months they had largely disappeared from the news—and from the Mediterranean—until a German rescue ship called the Sea Watch 3 defied Italian authorities by sailing, with 53 rescued migrants aboard, to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy’s far-right government was refusing to let the migrants enter the harbor, and, in an ongoing effort to criminalize sea rescue, then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini issued a decree that would allow authorities to fine NGOs as much as 50,000 euros, about $56,000, for entering Italian waters. (That figure has since been raised to one million euros.) With Sea Watch 3 stranded, the Alan Kurdi would be the only rescue ship searching the deadly waters off Libya for the entirety of my time on board. “It is not a comfortable feeling,” confided Sea-Eye’s chairman, Gorden Isler, “to be the last one.”

Nonetheless, on the evening of June 26, after days of training in the still, green waters of Burriana’s harbor, we sailed past the old fishing wharves and the last stone blocks of the breakwater. Soon the water was blue and deep, and our ship was pitching and yawing with the slightest surf. When the sun rose the next morning, the gulls that followed us from the harbor were gone, the land a low smear on the western horizon. Whatever uncertainties awaited, the crew was relieved to be going. There were 20 of us, mostly German, a mix of professional sailors and fresh-eyed volunteers. Some were clean-cut—for the first week anyway—others pierced and tattooed. One of the sailors had spent a month in a Russian prison for protesting oil drilling in the Barents Sea. Isler, round-faced and boyish, ran a small insurance firm in Hamburg. Waldemar Mischutin, our lanky, Russian-born captain, was a veteran of the Aquarius, another NGO ship that was grounded last year.

The pressure on him would be considerable. The day we left Burriana, Carola Rackete, his counterpart on the Sea Watch 3, sailed into Lampedusa’s harbor. As we sailed east, Salvini was blustering on Facebook that he would “use every legal means to put an end to this shameful situation.” He was not referring to the true shame in question here: thousands of refugees from war and famine risking their lives on the high seas, and the malign neglect of regional leaders like him that consigned their fate into the hands of makeshift and underfunded civilian rescue ships. No, Salvini was furious that rescuers continued rescuing despite his shrill insistence that they stop. It was a bit like seeing a hospital administrator throw a tantrum outside the E.R., shaking his fist at all approaching ambulances.

To understand all this properly would mean going back more than a century, when European powers began establishing colonial empires on the landmasses to the south and east and building systems for the extraction of wealth that would long outlive their makers. The empires are gone, but money and resources still flow north and west. Human beings are also heading north, pushed from their homes by the wars and immiseration that those extractive systems still reliably produce, by the cruelty and venality of their own leaders, and by changes to the climate that are already rendering swaths of the planet unlivable. This is likely an early stage, a test run of Europe’s ability to deal with the many millions who will almost certainly be forced from their homes by drought, desertification, and rising seas before the century’s end. So far, it’s not going well.

Out on the water, it was often easy to forget that the Mediterranean is an enormous graveyard. At dusk and dawn, the sea went opaque and almost milky, its surface reflecting the changing color of the sky. Sometimes dolphins chased us—they were faster—arcing triumphantly into the air beside the bow. The sea, smooth and furrowed like the skin of some great beast, seemed to swell and breathe, at turns generous and cruel. In a single week in April 2015, the Mediterranean took more than 1,200 people’s lives. Italy, which had single-handedly rescued more than 100,000 migrants in just twelve months, had shut down its search and rescue operations because the EU refused to chip in. The EU’s own efforts, focused more on “border control” than on saving lives, were worse than inadequate, so civilians began to step in. That May, a group of German investors who had bought an old fishing boat and refurbished it as a rescue ship, dispatched it to the Mediterranean. They named it Sea Watch. Others followed, among them Michael Buschheuer, another German businessman who, moved by photos of the drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, founded Sea-Eye that same fall. Larger, established charities—Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children—launched ships of their own.

For a little while, as many as twelve NGO boats were patrolling the central Mediterranean. By November 2016, they were responsible for nearly half the rescues in the sea. In the capitals of Europe, though, politicians were seeking a different solution. Earlier that year, the EU effectively closed migrant routes across the eastern Mediterranean by outsourcing enforcement: For a few billion euros and some political perks, Turkey agreed to prevent refugees from crossing into Europe. Libya, the main launching point in the central Mediterranean, was in the middle of a disastrous civil war, but EU bureaucrats were confident that with sufficient “capacity building” European border controls could be similarly “externalized,” and the flow of migrants contained on African shores.

For more than a year after his election in 2018, Salvini was happy to hold the spotlight, taking the credit and the blame for Europe’s inhospitality to migrants. (He would be shoved from power in a failed bit of political brinksmanship in August.) In truth, however, Italy’s migration policies antedate Salvini by at least two years, and represent an ugly consensus generally if more quietly shared by many powers in the EU. Europe’s current strategy was implemented by Salvini’s predecessor, Marco Minniti of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, with the active support of Germany’s center-right Christian Democrats. The idea was not to solve Europe’s “migrant crisis,” but to disappear it, and with it, perhaps, the electoral threat posed to the political center by the populist right. In February 2017—three days after a report from the German Embassy in Niger documented widespread torture, rapes, executions, and “concentration camp-like conditions” in the detention centers in which Libya confines migrants—Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya’s Government of National Accord to “individuate urgent solutions to the irregular migrants matter.” While the meaning of this dictate is all but unintelligible, the practical impact of the accord was immediately clear: Italy and the EU would soon begin transferring tens of millions of euros to Libya in order to shift responsibility for the migrant crisis to an unstable and barely functional regime with a horrible record of immigrant detention.

The idea was not to solve Europe’s “migrant crisis,” but to disappear it, and with it, perhaps, the electoral threat posed to the political center by the populist right.

The NGOs, still carrying migrants to European ports—and bearing witness to a humanitarian disaster that had not lessened in........

© New Republic