Boats 4 People: solidarity flotilla in the Mediterranean

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After a year of preparation, a sailboat left from Rosignago port, Italy, to Palermo, Lampedusa, and then off to Tunisia. The Boats 4 People project, bringing together 17 organisations, was initiated in summer 2011 as a campaign to denounce deaths in the Mediterranean and the impossibility to reach Europe safely for migrants, and enhance solidarity amongst seamen and activists on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Boats 4 People: a reaction to deaths at sea

The Mediterranean is a major transit route for migrants who try to reach the EU without an entry visa. This phenomenon has gained importance in the past few years. The dangerous route, the unsafe vessels, the attempt to cross undetected on small overcrowded boats too often resulted in shipwrecks and fatalities (see 2012 UNITED list of reported deaths at the border).[1]
In March 2011, NATO took the command of the international military operation "Unified Protector" aimed to establish a no-fly zone over Libya, to put the country under an arms-embargo, and to protect civilians and civilian-protected areas in Libya during the fight led by the "rebels" to overturn dictator Muhammar Gaddafi. The NATO operation "covered a maritime surveillance area of around 61,000 nautical square miles" with over 3,100 vessels being hailed. [2]

The Mediterranean was one of the most surveilled maritime spaces in the world during the NATO operation (February -October 2011). Yet, 2011 was estimated to be the "deadliest year" by the UNHCR since the organisation began to keep statistics on fatalities at sea in 2006. EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Cecilia Malström referred to this humanitarian disaster as "a historical mistake" in June 2012. [3]

Boats 4 People (B4P) was set-up as an initiative to react to this reality, with the milestones of the project established during the annual anti-racist meeting organised by the Italian organisation ARCI in Cecina, Italy, in July 2011. [4] After more than a year of coordination between organisations, communication, network with seamen organisations, civil society groups on both shores of the Mediterranean, the group was eventually lent a boat by one of ARCI's partner organisations.

Against the "war on migrants"

B4P aims to raise awareness on deaths at sea, denounce policies which contribute to the detention of migrants and which force them to engage in perilous journeys to reach Europe as regular access to Europe for third country nationals in increasingly hampered. B4P argues:

"Kaddafi and Ben Ali may have been overthrown, but so far, the transitional authorities in Libya and Tunisia have not broken with past migration policy. On the contrary, migration agreements are already being concluded with the EU and member states without transparency and emigration continues to be criminalised and migrants in transit continue to be arbitrarily detained. Military boats intercept migrants off the Tunisian and Libyan coasts with the consent of European authorities and camps such as the refugee camp in Choucha, Tunisia, are now being used to detain migrants intercepted at sea". [5]

This collective action highlights how current cooperation between the EU and third countries does not facilitate mobility but constitute very selective migration policies. Although many northern African states are still in transition, the European Union has been very pro-active in negotiating mobility partnerships (ongoing discussions with Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt) while Italy has recently renewed its cooperation with Libya after it was suspended in 2011. [6] Such cooperation comprises readmission clauses, and border surveillance cooperation including cooperation at sea.

In reaction to this context, the objectives of the projects were four fold:

" "Build a network of organizations and activists on both shores of the Mediterranean and beyond"
" "Build a network of sailors to alert on violations of migrants' human rights at sea"
" "Bring charges against State agents, NATO or Frontex for violations of migrants' human rights"
" "Organise sea missions to document, denounce and prevent violations of migrants' human rights at sea"
" Promote solidarity in the Mediterranean so the area stop being "a mass grave for migrants"

Promoting solidarity

Particularly at stake is the major issue of search and rescue (SAR) responsibilities at sea. SAR obligations are defined by the law of the sea (article 98) and the Schengen Borders Code but are very attached to national agendas and the desire of Member States, especially those with an external maritime border, not to bear the "entire burden" of irregular migration. [7]

Mmany crews are now unwilling to provide assistance to migrants in distress when it is clear that they have no permit to enter the EU. The 2007 Cap Anamur case was very illustrative of seamen being at risk of criminalisation pursuant to carriers' liability clauses as assisting irregular migrants in distress was associated with facilitating irregular entry in the EU (the Cap Anamur crews and capitains all faced charged for "illegal immigration for profit"). [8] The accused were released of all the charges in 2009; still, the case had a tremendous impact and seamen are very cautious to avoid being prosecuted for searching and rescuing migrants in distress.

As a consequence, not only are border guards not willing to intervene outside of their SAR zone, but they are careful not to take initiatives in high seas which could have a negative impact on their career (e.g. prosecution) or result in their country being in charge of the intercepted migrants (have to apply the EU asylum procedure or support of any kind).

The recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights -ECHR (Hirsi v Italy) challenged this practice by clarifying the notion of "extraterritorial jurisdiction" where "de jure or de facto jurisdiction" is conditioned upon the fact that the country exercises "full and exclusive control" during the events brought forward to the court. Besides, as argued by the ECHR:

"Italy cannot circumvent its "jurisdiction" under the Convention by describing the events at issue as rescue operations on the high seas". [9]

However, cases like that of the 72 migrants left adrift in the Mediterranean for days in March and April 2011, despite being in one of the most surveilled area at that time, show that crews still protect themselves behind their national obligations to avoid responsibility. The documentary by Emilio Bas, Mare Deserto [10], is based on interviews with the 9 survivors of the shipwreck, Italian coast guards and NATO representatives. The arguments put forward for not providing assistance to dozens of migrants in distress, including women and children, are all the same: it was nobody's obligation to rescue them (NATO argues the alert sent to all vessels in the area did not mention rescuing but only identification at sea; the Italian border guards considered they boat was outside its jurisdiction and therefore could not do much but inform vessels in the area).
Humanitarian obligations and common sense seems to be overshadowed by legal mandates, defined responsibilities (except in the high seas, which is an important issue) and the fear of bearing the responsibility attached to "irregular migration".

A symbolic route

In this context, the Boats 4 People projects challenges these practices by promoting solidarity amongst seamen and raising awareness of the political agenda surrounding cooperation between the EU and its Mediterranean neighbours.

The boast departed from Cecina/Rosignano (Italy) on 2 July 2012. [11] The journey will last three weeks, following a highly symbolic route from Italy to Tunisia, thus showing that circulation in the Mediterranean is not limited to "south-north" trajectories. Crew members comprise journalists, activists and a Green MEP. The boat will stop at Palermo, Monastir, Tunis and will terminate its journey in Lampedusa during the "Interval" film festival on migration. Each step will see activists, organisations of families of people who died or disappeared at sea, journalists, politicians connect. Events will be organised to inform about detention of migrants, border controls and in parallel to the international preparatory meeting of the 2013 World Social Forum which will be held in Tunisia.

Boats 4 People aims eventually to facilitate communication, support and solidarity for migrant rights in the Mediterranean Sea and maintain strong ties between the different actors who have joined the initiative.

Further on B4P including information on how to support the project is available at:


[1] UNITED (2012) List of 16,264 documented refugee deaths through Fortress Europe
[2] NATO (2011) Operation Unified Protector: final mission stats
[3] Statewatch (2012) EU's rejection of migrants during the Arab Spring: a "historical mistake" according to Commissioner Malström
[5] Boats 4 People (2011) Stop migrant death at sea. For Freedom and Solidarity in the Mediterranean
[6] ASGI (2012) Refugee day and the agreement with Libya: let's not repeat the mistakes of the past
[7] "EU States must share immigration burden", Times of Malta, 2 June 2012
[8] Statewatch (2007) Criminalising solidarity - Cap Anamur trial underway
[9] ECHR (2012) CASE OF HIRSI JAMAA AND OTHERS V. ITALY (Application no. 27765/09)
[10] "Mare Deserto", 2012, by Emilio Bas, RSI channel (Radiotelevisione svizzera)
[11] "Se l'Italia non sono anche loro A Cecina i diritti negati ai migrant", La Reppublica, 2 July 2012

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