LIBE committee discusses the obligations of the European Union in Search and Rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea

In the light of last week’s agreement on a new, temporary relocation system, the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in the European Parliament organised a hearing on October 3rd on the topic of ‘Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea’. The debate touched upon core issues of the EU’s obligation, both legally and morally, to rescue people at sea. The debate precedes a renewed member state discussion about refugee relocation on 8 October.

A key concern that permeated the meeting was on international law in relation to the obligations of the EU to save lives at Sea. Michael Shotter, Director for Migration in the European Commission, stated that saving lives at sea is not just a matter of international law, but of “moral duty”. He said that therefore the Commission recognises the efforts carried out by NGO sea vessels and further hopes that more EU member states will join the agreement from September 23, which sets up a temporary and voluntary agreement for relocation of rescued migrants and refugees. This point of view was further acknowledged by Tamás Molnár, research officer for the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, who specified that international instruments clearly state that assistance must be provided to those in need at sea, arguing that “we should not miss the human rights aspects”.

“Where were you?”

However, the morality of the EU was put into question by captain of Sea-Watch, Carola Rackete, who asked the EU where it was when she needed help to disembark people last year. She told parliamentarians at the meeting that she was necessitated to disembark the saved people at Lampedusa, only to be locked up and questioned by the police afterwards. As a captain and as a human being, she considered it her duty to assist the people she found at sea. Rackete explains that it was “frustrating” to see that no European states would take in the rescued people, leaving her feeling “ashamed as a European citizen”. She therefore called upon the Parliamentarians to change their framework for search and rescue operations, by avoiding ad-hoc solutions when disembarking people, as well as changing the Dublin Regulation. Her speech ended with a standing ovation from the audience at the hearing.

Rackete further went on to question the actions of the previous Italian government, which she accuses of not adhering to international law when rejecting rescued people. Her actions last year caused her to be put under question by the Italian police, an investigation which is still on-going. These actions were further questioned by several members of the Parliament during the hearing, where one accused her of bringing criminals to Europe and claimed that Rackete should be imprisoned.

Libya as a destination for disembarkation

All the speakers at the meeting agreed that human rights should be defended and that the EU is obligated towards saving people at sea. This brought on the question of whether Libya can be  considered a safe place for returning migrants and refugees saved at sea. Director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, claimed that it is not the responsibility of Frontex to decide on the safety of Libya as a destination for disembarkation. Meanwhile, both Shotter and Rackete expressed their concern for the EU’s continuing policy of using the agreement with the Libyan Coast Guard as a means to return people, as Libya is considered an unsafe destination by both speakers. Rackete called upon the Parliamentarians to change their framework for rescue-operations and end cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard. She declared that the EU should not be sending migrants and refugees back to the place of their previous torment.

It is expected that the member states of the EU will discuss the new relocation system on October 8.