SeaWatch3 – a battle of numbers over the relocation of rescued migrants

The EU and the governments of Malta and Italy have been wrangling since the end of December over who is responsible for the people rescued in open sea by German NGOs. The treatment of the Sea Watch and the Sea Eye has brought into sharp focus the effect of Europe’s hard-line shift on migration — a desperate rescue boat tossed about and unable to dock because of tempestuous politics. The odyssey ended last week when the volunteers of the Sea Watch3 communicated to the 49 migrants on board that the deal with EU and the Member States government was valid and that they were going to disembark in a few hours. The migrants had spent 40 days in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, with few provisions or materials to meet their basic needs. The Sea Watch issue has reopened the European political debate on two main points: 1) the role of NGOs in overcoming the lack of protection of migrants in search and rescue operations (SAR); 2)   the policies concerning the relocation of migrants. It is a battle of numbers, in which the quantity of relocated migrants is more important than their safety. The issues of relocation and resettlement seem to be highly controversial at the European level. In view of the reform of the Dublin Regulation, the EU is seeking agreement among governments.

SOLIDAR underlines that NGOs have played a vital and life-saving role in SAR operations in recent years and helped improve maritime safety. The accusations about not respecting international law, favouring human trafficking and profiting from their activities are just more false myths, and part of the ongoing criminalisation of solidarity and humanitarian activities. We ask once again for full recognition of the fundamental role that these NGOs have in SAR operations and call on EU institutions and governments to support them. Humanitarian NGO’s were the most important single SAR-actor, making 26% of rescues in 2016, followed by the Italian Navy (21%), Italian Coast Guard (20%), EUNAFOR MED (17%) and Frontex (8%). They are constantly making up for the lack of structural and organisational capacity among EU Member States.

 It is important to note the difference between relocation and resettlement in order to avoid misunderstandings over the two policies: 1) resettlement is the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third country that admits them – as refugees – with a permanent residence status (UNHCR); 2) relocation is the transfer of persons who are in clear need of international protection from one EU Member State to another EU Member State (European Commission). SOLIDAR hopes that future policies concerning relocation, as well as the possible deal between Member States on resettlement, will not take into account numerical data and figures, but rather and mainly the subjective rights of migrants. We hope that the NGOs that work not only in the SAR operations but also in the first reception of migrants will be given greater recognition during future negotiations on the topic, and will be protected against the continuous political attacks.