What working on a Mediterranean rescue boat taught me about the politics of asylum

The Seefuchs

Our boat sat 20 miles off the Libyan coast. Did our presence encourage people to make the dangerous journey in the first place?

Around 6am on 10 June 2017, our search and rescue ship, the Seefuchs, was idling 18 miles off the coast of Libya when Ingo, the engineer, spotted two boats. The first was the one we had been looking for: a blue wooden boat carrying 80 asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa. The second was a smaller plastic boat containing three Libyans. I was to learn that a Libyan boat follows behind almost every boat carrying asylum seekers. These Libyans were not here to help.

Just as Elon Musk’s SpaceX recycles its used rockets, the smugglers have found a way to reclaim the engines they have just sold to the asylum seekers. Sometimes they would steal the outboard engine before we arrived, leaving the occupants of the boat adrift. Sometimes they would wait until we’d transferred the asylum seekers to a larger boat, so they could then also steal the empty boat. These people are known as the “engine fishers” of the Libyan Sea.

That morning, they were yet to steal the engine. But nor did they want to wait for us to finish the rescue. Just as were were approaching, the engine fishers drove alongside the stern of the asylum seekers’ boat, causing the occupants to begin to shout and push them back. This commotion is dangerous: the boats that carry people to Europe are unsteady. Even a small redistribution of weight can pitch the occupants into the sea. To make matters worse, we hadn’t yet handed out lifejackets. A few people had bought their own in Libya, but such lifejackets are generally worthless: they don’t float, they soak up water and weigh their owners down. We needed to stop the commotion before it got worse.

Ingo blew the Seefuchs’ horn to scare off the engine fishers and started swearing at them in German, punching the air as he yelled. Leo, Konrad, and I drove towards them in our small rescue craft. In order to avert a disaster, I called out to the engine fishers: “Stop. Move away. Wait until we finish.” My English had little effect. With my hands, I gestured at them to back up. They understood and reversed, giving us a thumbs up. In return, I gave one as well. The engine fishers would no doubt steal the engine (and the boat) later, but we had averted the immediate danger for the asylum seekers. In the process, though, we risked a political problem for ourselves.

The asylum seekers and the engine fishers following behind. Image: Harald Jahn

The Italian government is increasingly critical of non-governmental search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Just days ago, Sicilian authorities seized the NGO boat Open Arms and accused crewmembers of promoting illegal immigration and associating with criminals. Such rhetoric has steadily increased.

Non-governmental organisations first became active in 2015 after Italy’s own rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, came to an end. Since then, they have become a convenient scapegoat for the migrant crisis. In the last year, populist and far-right leaders have become more aggressive, even claiming that NGO boats collaborate with the human traffickers in Libya.

When I returned to the Seefuchs two months later, in August, this political change had become clear. The far-right pan-European Identitarian Movement had leased a ship called the C-Star and brought her to Libya. It wanted to draw public attention to what it saw as the NGOs’ regrettable role in abetting migration to Europe, and to expose the links it believed existed between NGOs and people smugglers. The C-Star, which our German crew renamed the Eva Braun, went adrift – not because of engine fishers, but because of a malfunctioning engine. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome asked our NGO to assist it, but the Eva Braun declined the help.

The C-Star was not alone in distrusting NGOs. A week before the C-Star

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