About a year ago, German captain Carola Rackete was arrested for docking 53 people rescued from a shipwrecked vessel in the port of Lampedusa, against the instructions of the Italian authorities. MEP Erik Marquardt spoke with EURACTIV Germany about what has changed since then and the role of civil society and politics.
Erik Marquardt has been a member of the European Parliament since 2019 and is the spokesman on migration policy for the Greens/EFA Group. He has been on several sea rescue missions in the Mediterranean in recent years.
What has changed since [Italian Interior Minister Matteo] Salvini’s resignation with regards to sea rescue?
At the European level, discussions on the refugee issue have not become easy, but they have become easier. Salvini was not interested in solutions. Instead, he blamed the sea rescue organisations. His resignation has made room for a more objective debate.
So sea rescue operations have become popular again?
Not necessarily. Salvini left scorched earth, especially when it comes to public sentiment in countries like Italy. We’ll have to see how we can patch that up. Unfortunately, the Italian government is reluctant to deviate from Salvini’s course, especially when it comes to criminalising sea rescue.
This has also been clearly seen in the pandemic. Of course, Italy was one of the hardest hit countries, but there are also victims in the Mediterranean. You cannot simply say that people are now drowning because of coronavirus.
What could bring about a change in the public sentiment?
This requires civil society. The case of Carola Rackete, for example, was perceived quite differently in Germany than in Italy. There, Salvini carried out a massive propaganda campaign against sea rescue organisations, which shaped many people’s opinions. In Germany, on the other hand, organisations such as Sea-Watch have helped to place the case objectively in the social debate. This has, in turn, led politicians to become more reserved in their statements.
But wouldn’t fewer refugees come to Europe if there were no private sea rescue service?
Here, the political debate has completely detached itself from reality. Leaders hold up this so-called “pull effect” in asylum policy. Yet, we have known for a long time that more people are not coming because there are sea rescue operations. In the debate, it is often forgotten that people fled Libya before 2015.
Conversely, this logic also means that Europe’s external borders must become more dangerous than the conditions in Libya, so that no one else comes. Surely that cannot seriously be our goal.
You said that the perception of sea rescue in Germany has changed, but sea rescue organisations complain about an increasing criminalisation of their activities.
Yes, we are experiencing ever more creative criminalisation measures, for example, with the new Ship Safety Adaptation Ordinance, which now classifies not only sea rescue but also human rights monitoring as dangerous.
It is also embarrassing that an NGO is almost forced to register ships in dictatorships, because the scope for operating sea rescue vessels in democratic states is so limited. Criminalisation is part of a strategy to worsen the humanitarian conditions at the external borders, which hurts rescuers as well.
What do you expect from the Migration Pact in this respect?
I fear that it could enshrine current injustices in the law, because there is no way of getting more out of the negotiations. The existing abuses are unlikely to be seriously addressed. This can be seen from the fact that the Commission intends to issue guidelines, which would encourage the criminalisation of humanitarian aid. As long as there is no obligation for member states to provide humanitarian aid, the Commission will not solve problems, because member states can continue to do whatever they want.
What contribution can the German government make here within the framework of its EU Council Presidency?
It is important to address these issues again clearly. So far there is a tacit agreement to continue reducing the number of arriving refugees by all means possible. At the same time, we have already seen a massive drop in the number of people arriving in Europe since 2016, although more and more people are displaced. There is always a lot of talk about fighting the causes of displacement, but in reality, the opposite happens.
However, before we can credibly tackle the world’s problems, we should look at our own borders. The German government should work towards clearing up the incidents at the EU’s external borders. I also think it would be wrong to postpone the question of the distribution mechanism. Of course, this is a hard nut to crack, but Germany should set a good example.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]