Anglers of Men

“Search and Rescue” - A young African woman holding her baby tries to catch sight of European shores through the porthole.  “Search and Rescue” - A young African woman holding her baby tries to catch sight of European shores through the porthole. © SOS MEDITERRANEE / MSF - Yann Merlin

a personal reflection by Lorenzo Rinelli

Giusy Nicolini, Mayor of Lampedusa (Italy) and SOS Méditerranée (France) have been nominated for the prestigious Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize


On April 19, the Jury of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize nominated Giusy Nicolini, Mayor of Lampedusa (Italy) and the nongovernmental organisation SOS Méditerranée (France), for their work assisting civilians stranded in the Mediterranean.

The prestigious peace prize was established in 1989 by a resolution supported by 120 countries, and adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO at its 25th session. The prize was symbolically named after  Félix Houphouët-Boigny,  known in the West as the "Sage of Africa" for his invaluable effort in bringing stability and peace in decolonizing Africa.

It is worth noting that in setting up this prize, the General Conference of UNESCO wanted to reiterate its dedication to strengthening harmony and dialogue between different cultures. The prize therefore has become a significant instrument to support and credit individuals like Mayor Nicolini and organisations like SOS Méditerranée that have strived to create a world of greater mutual support and human fellowship.

Mixed-migration between safety and security

The decision of the Jury to assign the prize to two actors actively involved in aiding and rescuing civilians could not come at a more critical time. Every year, when the season and weather conditions are favourable, further civilians attempt to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching a safe space. Just as often, depending on political timings, some politicians use the occurrence of mixed-migrationflows to frame the issue firmly within the discourse of security. But security and safety for whom?

The pivotal concern is hardly the safety of people who travel through the Central Mediterranean. Before the liquidation of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the central Mediterranean route was the most trafficked and dangerous among the paths that traverse the great Sahara desert and the Mediterranean basin. According to UNHCR and IOM estimates, 2016 saw the largest number of migrant deaths on record in the Mediterranean (5.083 compared with 3.777 in 2015 - 3.279 in 2014 and already 1.089 in 2017).

Therefore, it is significant and timely that the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize was awarded to the Mayor of Lampedusa. This is an iconic isle in the Mediterranean that has always been a safe harbour for those in transit. Likewise, it is important that an organisation like SOS Méditerranée that patrols the waters around the isle, searching for rescuing people in distress, got the same prize. Nowadays, both actors find themselves under attack for the very reason they were chosen as the recipients of this prestigious peace prize.

In particular, some accusations are coming from the European Union's border control agency Frontex, created in 2004, against nongovernmental organisations like SOS Méditerranée that run SAR (Search and Rescue operations) in the Mediterranean. Frontex latest Risk Analysis Report 2017 asserts, quite brashly, that charity rescue vessels generate a pull factor for migrants and traffickers alike. Frontex states that “all parties involved in SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean unintentionally help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthening their business model by increasing the chances of success”. However, trajectories of those on the run cannot be read and comprehended only through the lens of an econometric calculus of push and pull factors. This approach may lead to the policies over politics, widening the gap between communities of people and institutions.

At the Italian national level, prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro from Catania insinuates that some charities may work directly with North African traffickers to coordinate where to pick up migrants at sea, rather than waiting for the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome to dispatch them. More notably, he questions where these benevolent organisations are obtaining their money to operate, hinting at arms-dealers and warmongers as fundraisers.  Some political parties were quick to act on these assumptions, spreading them wide over social media.

As a result, NGOs were forced to defend their actions, and stand up for their mandate. In a joint operation between Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, they held a press conference on their rescue vessel Aquarius, that had just saved several hundred migrants and refugees at sea and made it safely to the port of Catania, Sicily. “We are surprised at the timing of these allegations, more than a year after we and others have been in service,” Sophie Beau, co-founder and vice-president of SOS Méditerranée told the media.  

The truth is that for the last 20 years, civilian victims of conflicts and injustices have been dying while attempting to reach Europe, notwithstanding OHCHR's Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders. In particular, according to those Principles "International borders are not zones of exclusion or exception for human rights obligations", but international and civil society organisations are all responsible to "ensure the human rights, safety and dignity of all persons rescued". Finally, in the chronic absence of a EU strategy, and a lack of initiative to provide a safe corridor option for migration and asylum, there is an international and independent fleet of humanitarian organisations out there, saving lives at sea. “We are here out of a moral and legal obligation after a failure of the European Union states to tackle the problem,” Beau insists. “Everything we do is transparent; we have nothing to hide”.

A new political space

Border zones like the island of Lampedusa, together with the surrounding waters, have become a political site where rights are made real, and aspirations are being put to the test. Rights are being demanded, asserted, and equally, contested. This is why we, at L’Osservatorio, by focusing on the conditions that force civilians to flee and on those tensions at the border, have come to and worked on the island of Lampedusa. A new political space has been built here, based on the ideas of hospitality and humanity. This is what has been recognised today by the UNESCO. Through the video project “The Gate of Europe”, the theme of asylum-seeker smuggling is explored, both by making use of first-hand accounts by survivors and rescuers, and those of humanitarian workers and human rights specialists. Whilst it stresses the importance of opening legal migration channels in order to prevent the trafficking of human beings, the documentary also highlights the increasing youth involvement in the current humanitarian crisis.

Ultimately, the Island of Lampedusa has reached a symbolic status, as both a camp and a gateway into Europe, while being one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world. In other words, we may well define it as a theatrical stage where multiple spectacles are put on, depending on who is watching. Nonetheless, as any symbol, Lampedusa is a powerful space of co-presence where African civilian victims, European tourists, national institutions and locals share the same stage and a contemporaneity that pulls them towards new directions of cohabitation and humanity. Denigrated by some, whilst praised by others, this true sense of humanity has been recognized by some, idealists enough to bestow them with a prestigious prize. Of course, this prize does not  end controversies and allegations; it is a matter of careful translation, of continuous negotiations and inevitable misunderstandings among parties that some politicians have deemed to be untranslatable. However, in the same waters around the island of Lampedusa we see the chance to generate a new political subject, adequate enough to meet the challenges of multiple, ubiquitous borders, contemporary dislocation and the predicament of civilian victims of conflicts.

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