Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza
CC-BY-SA RESQSHIP / Linda Rochlitzer

Barriers and people in the central Mediterranean

Observations from the latest rotation of Sailing Vessel Nadir, by RESQSHIP


by Pietro Desideri

The Nadir went back to sailing, 18 floating meters in support of those who decide to challenge Fortress Europe. Our rotation coincided with a painful anniversary: ten years earlier 368 people lost their lives in front of Lampedusa. Instead of creating safe passages, European policies are more and more deadly. I share three observations from the rotation 1 which just ended.

A new wall

The first: the Tunisian corridor is shrinking. Up until September many boats had managed to get to Lampedusa from Sfax, to the point that this route had overtaken the Lybian one by volume. Day in and day out the Italian coast guard was rescueing dozens of flimsy boats and thousands of people, who thus managed to get to Lampedusa.

A situation that the government went as far as to define it an “act of war,” while more than 7,000 people on the move blocked on the island had no access to the most basic services. Faced with the orchestrated collapse of the so-called reception system, it were the channels of widespread solidarity that supported the people – restaurants that did not charge any money, people who self-organized to distribute meals in the streets.

All of this happened until the week before our rotation started. We instead observed the consequences of the agreement signed in July with Tunisian President Saïed. A disgraceful agreement, arranged with an autocrat who deports to the desert and stirs up the population against people from sub-Saharan Africa. At sea we also gather survivors’ testimonies, telling of widespread and blind violence – they tell of pogroms.

Once the agreement between Saied and EU signed, as soon as the money arrived, we witnessed the plummeting of the numbers of arrivals from Tunisia. It is dismaying, knowing that people are subjected to vicious physical violence, and they can’t even escape the country anymore.

These days we witness the two sides haggling on the price: Saied returns the money he took, in his view not enough to fullfill the role of EU external police. Pull backs are a paid service and cost a lot, while the rights of people on the move are so expendable.

Escaping from the so-called coastguard

The second observation: a hybrid routhe between the Libyan and the Tunisian ones is intensifying. It involves boats leaving Libya. Instead of heading directly for Lampedusa they divert towards Tunisia, following its coasts offshore. The detour is an attempt to avoid the so-called Libyan coast guard, its violence and pull backs 2.

Libyan pull backs are widespread, daily, coordinated by Frontex air assets.
During our rotation onboard Nadir, Sea Bird documented one of the many pullbacks, during which a so-called Libian coast guard asset rammed into a rubber boat, resulting in 50 people in the water.

Fast civil fleet assets, such as Louise Michel or Aurora, often engage in races to get to distress cases before the sc Libyan coast guard, with mixed results and, accordingly, great relief or great sadness and anger.

The attempt to try a new route is an escape in itself, a hint towards the degree of violence to which people are subjected. We ourselves have had survivors onboard the Nadir who had already been pulled back by the sc Lybian coast guard and taken inside the European-funded Libyan lagers -living witnesses of a brutality difficult to imagine. Those lagers revolve around torturing, extorting, calling family during the tortures to receive ransom money. One of the persons we had onboard, who escaped after seven months of detention, wanted to describe the situation by only recalling their comrades who remained in those facilities: “there are a lot of people in prison. We hope they will be lucky.”

Iron boat

The last observation: we assisted an iron boat which had departed from Libya. This may be the first such boat coming from so far away, and it could open up to worrying developments. For example in Tunisia the first iron boats had appeared last year, and then had become predominant. Iron boats are easy to assemble, cheap, and can hold about fifty persons. They expose people to additional risks while sailing, because because of the material they are made of they sink more easily as soon as they begin to take water.

CC-BY-SA RESQSHIP / Linda Rochlitzer

Once again, as always when Europe’s dirty money poses new obstacles, the means and routes to penetrate the Fortress change and adapt. People who decide to risk their lives, practicing freedom of movement, sometimes stand at the bow of an iron boat departing Libya, wearing glasses reminiscent of Michel Polnareff, staring at us.

CC-BY-SA RESQSHIP / Linda Rochlitzer
  1. The word “rotation” is widespread for signifying a period of search and rescue, it replaces the term “mission,” which is embedded in colonial history
  2. Pullbacks in the central Med are pushbacks by proxy: Europe finances the so-called Libyan coast guard -local militia- because directly pushing people back into Libya is against international law