How the EU is failing to keep its core principles at its own borders

Featured image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The 20th of June marked World Refugee Day. This day, initiated by the UN, celebrates the strength and courage of refugees worldwide who have been forced to leave their homes and make often dangerous journeys to escape war and conflict. The aim of this day is also to raise awareness and empathy for the struggles many refugees go through and to honour their resilience when starting a new life. For Europe, the stream of refugees coming from the Middle East and Northern Africa is to this day a crisis without a proper solution.

2015: Europe is blindsided as disaster strikes at and within EU borders

Summer 2015; the refugee crisis has the EU under full control. 1,014,973 migrants make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. The number of attempted journeys is unknown as not all survive the journey on unseaworthy boats.  News outlets report on the crisis daily, as horrifying pictures of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea make the rounds. European leaders are fighting on how to distribute the hundreds of thousands of arrivals who are fleeing from the war in Syria. Whilst Hungary erects a razor-wire fence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announces Germany's open borders policy with the famous words “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do this). Many people are trying to get to western Europe via the so-called Balkan Route.

2016: Overwhelmed EU scrambles to stop the immense flow of refugees


In March of 2016, the route through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary is closed. Thousands of migrants are now stuck in Greece. As European countries are becoming overwhelmed with the flow of migrants entering Europe the EU-Turkey Deal is signed in which the EU will ensure the resettling of one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every irregular migrant returned to Turkey from Greece.

2017: Growing populist right-wing voices spread across Europe

In the following years, arrival numbers decreased from 373,652 arrivals in 2016 to 185,139 in 2017, and the coverage in the media slowed down. The ongoing refugee crisis has caused rifts in Northern European societies as populist, right-wing parties begin to gain traction. In France, Marine Le Pen and her party Front National just miss out on the presidency against Emmanuel Macron and his new party Republique En Marche. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gained a shocking 12.6% in the general election that year, making them the 3rd strongest party out of 6 currently in the Bundestag.

So what now?

The fight still continues at Europe's borders. Until 31 October 2014, Operation Mare Nostrum operated by the Italian Navy saved 130,000 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean. After several requests for support by Italy, which were not granted by the EU the operation was terminated and replaced by Operation Triton which is operated by Frontex, the EU’s border security agency. The operation which has a significantly smaller search and rescue capacity is in no way able to make the same rescue efforts as the Italian Coast Guard did.
Since the EU was and is to this day not providing sufficient area-wide sea rescue several non-governmental organisations have taken it upon themselves to take over this very necessary role. These include for example Jugend rettet, Louise Michel, Mediterrana Saving Humans, Mission Lifeline, SOS Mediteranée and Sea Watch. However, not all of these organisations are currently able to take active rescue efforts. It is becoming increasingly difficult for private boats to make rescue efforts because Italian ports are not allowing these boats to dock in the ports and if they do the crew members are arrested, the boats seized or the organisations have to pay high penalties.

How sea-rescue NGOs are being prosecuted for allegedly committing crimes

On 12th June 2019, the crew of the Sea-Watch 3 rescued 53 shipwrecked refugees off the Libyan coast. The captain of the ship Carola Rackete then steered the ship towards Italy which was 200 sea miles away instead of Libya which was only 47 sea miles away because as the EU commission explained,it is not a safe destination for shipwrecked refugees. She then approached Italian waters but the Italian authorities denied her access. Rackete remained in constant contact with authorities explaining she had injured and ill people as well as children on board. These were eventually picked up by Italian coast guards, however, the majority of the migrants had to remain on board. After 2 weeks of cruising on the edge of Italian territorial waters, Carola Rackete decided to enter Italian waters without permission. She radioed the authorities in Lampedusa with the following words:

"I inform you I will enter territorial waters due to a state of necessity on board my vessel. I am concerned for the safety of the people who I have on board. I ask for your cooperation to disembark the 42 people i have on board."

The crew of the Sea-Watch 3 did not receive any cooperation. On the contrary, the Italian Border Police actively tried to block the ship from docking several times.  After they did dock on the 29th June Carola Roackete was arrested by order of the Italian minister of the interior Salvini. The situation on board had by now sparked the interest of the International press and media reacted differently to Racktes actions. On 20th May 2021 the court in Agrigento on Sicily decided to drop the charges against Carola Rackete. The Judge explained that Rackete's choice to enter the port was one of necessity and therefore not an act of violence.

How did European leaders react?

Germany's minister of the interior Heiko Maas demanded that sea rescue should not be criminalised and federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier also criticised the arrest. The Luxembourgian minister of the exterior also supported Rackete's reaction and said she had no other choice. The City of Paris also explained that they intended to award Carola Rackete with the city's highest honour. However, there were also some that condemned Rackete's actions such as the Austrian and Dutch governments, who stated that Rackete was giving false hope and acting as a bridge between Libya and Europe.

Where are we in 2021?

While the story of Carola Rackete might have been an extreme case, boats being denied access to ports is not unique. At the end of April, Sea-Watch 4 embarked on a new journey on the Mediterranean after it was seized by Italian authorities in September 2020.  On 2nd March 2021 Administrative Court in Palermo preliminarily suspended the detention of the Sea-Watch 4.  Within a little over 48 hours the crew had rescued 455 people from 6 boats. Italy and Malta both denied access to their ports even though the crew and the Sea-Watch 4 itself had nowhere near the capacity to sufficiently care for the traumatised passengers. The Sea Watch 4 was eventually allowed to dock in the port of Traipani in Sicily. However, on 8th May, the Italian authorities seized the Sea Watch 4 again after appealing the decision of the European Court of Justice. According to Sea Watch, with no NGOs at sea, 700 people were pulled back to Libya within one day.

Is there a political solution on the horizon?

In September 2020 the European Commission proposed a New Pact that aims to create an efficient and fair migration process. The New Pact introduces solutions for the management of external borders through identity, health and security checks. It also includes fairer and more efficient asylum rules and distribution of asylum-seekers and a new solidarity mechanism for situations of search and rescue. This pact is not fully ratified yet but could be a step to creating a sustainable solution at Europe's southern borders.


The question, however, remains if the new pact will really be able to provide the essential and correct humanitarian support that is needed in the Mediterranean. If one crew on a private rescue mission was able to rescue nearly 500 people within 48 hours it is obvious that the crisis in the Mediterranean is ongoing. While the media is currently oversaturated with anything pandemic related. We must not forget the extreme suffering still going on on our southern borders. The commitment to the cause of private sea-rescue organisations can only be praised in my opinion and I can do nothing but support their efforts.

How can we help?

As these NGOs are predominantly funded through sponsorships by private people like you and me, any donations can go a long way to help fund more rescue efforts. You can donate to the organisation Sea Watch here. However, as mentioned at the beginning, there are plenty of other NGOs who do just as great work rescuing people in need.