Imagine, for a moment, that you saved someone from drowning. Chances are you’d be seen as a hero.
Now imagine you saved thousands of people from drowning. In Europe these days, you might just be labeled a criminal.
Take the case of thirty-five-year old German boat captain Pia Klemp, who personally helped rescue more than one thousand migrants in the Mediterranean — that deadly body of water protecting Fortress Europe from hapless humans seeking a better life. For her efforts, Klemp is now facing twenty years in prison thanks to the sociopathic machinations of the Republic of Italy, which has been at the forefront of criminalizing sea rescues and other humanitarian activity.
In 2018, fascist groupie Matteo Salvini — who serves as both Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister — closed Italian ports to NGO rescue boats, while also vowing to deport half a million migrants and refugees as part of a “mass cleaning” of the country.
Of course, it has always been perfectly fine for Europe to plunder Africa and other migrant-producing territories in any way it sees fit. Never mind, too, that the legacy of colonialism has more than a little to do with current migration patterns. The casting of the migrant as an apocalyptic menace comes in handy in corrupt European locales — ciao, Italia — where public attention must be constantly redirected from all the ways the state is actively fucking over the citizenry.
According to the official unhinged rhetoric, Klemp and her ilk are guilty of collaborating with human traffickers and of aiding and abetting illegal migration to Europe — namely, by guaranteeing invading migrants that they’ll be promptly scooped up from the Mediterranean and deposited on dry land with VIP service. But this argument, you might say, hardly holds water.
A recent press release from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) quotes Frédéric Penard, director of operations of the NGO SOS Méditerranée: “The reality is, even with fewer and fewer humanitarian vessels at sea, people with little alternatives will continue to undertake this deadly sea crossing regardless of the risks.” Penard continues: “The only difference now is people are nearly four times more likely to die compared to last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.”
MSF notes that, since Italy’s decision one year ago to block humanitarian vessels from its ports, “at least 1,151 vulnerable men, women and children have died” at sea, and more than ten thousand have been forcibly returned to the point of embarkation in Libya, an infamous hotspot for migrant torture, rape, kidnapping, and slavery.
A June 9 Guardian article titled “Mediterranean will be ‘sea of blood’ without rescue boats, UN warns” furthermore cites a study by an Italian think tank indicating that “one in eight people attempting the crossing from Libya between January and April had died en route.”
And it’s not just solidarity. It’s also empathy, compassion, and pretty much any other vaguely positive human attribute. A key component of the criminalization process is the dehumanization of the “other” — which can be done via simple racism or by inverting reality to portray people fleeing obscene violence (often Western-fueled) as the aggressors. It also helps to have propaganda stunts, like the time Italy ordered the seizure of a migrant rescue ship operated by MSF and SOS Méditerranée because migrant clothing might have been contaminated by HIV. As we all know, sometimes you can even catch HIV when an infected person looks at you.
As an American citizen, of course, I am persona molto grata in Europe — an arrangement that has enabled me to cross paths over the years with a number of migrants in Italy and other districts of the fortress. In Rome in 2015, I spoke with an Eritrean who went by the name of Jerry and who recounted his flight from eternal military service back home — a trip from hell that took him through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya to end up on a small boat with three hundred other people for four stormy days. Upon arrival in Italy, he was stripped of any remaining dignity. After all, just because Italy had colonized Eritrea didn’t mean Eritreans should fancy themselves worthy of movement in the opposite direction.
In the Maltese town of Birżebbuġa in 2014, I spoke to a young Gambian man who had, like many other people, unintentionally turned up in the migrant super-prison of Malta while trying to reach Italy. His boat from Libya had been intercepted by a US warship, which passed the human cargo off to the Maltese for long-term detention, a thoroughly criminalizing experience that, my interlocutor told me, had required him to be handcuffed even for trips to the doctor.
But again, migration is a breeze and Europe is the real victim.
Now, as Klemp and others face charges, it bears recalling that humanitarians on the other side of the Atlantic are often in the same boat. Case in point: thirty-six-year-old Arizona geography teacher Scott Warren was also threatened with twenty years jail time — the magic number, it seems — for giving two Central American migrants food and water when obviously they should have been put in concentration camps instead.
And for all the noise emitted by governments about the supposedly singular evil of human smuggling, such lucrative business would not exist in the first place had these same governments not taken it upon themselves to selectively criminalize human movement and militarize borders.
Speaking to the Guardian, Klemp described one Mediterranean rescue experience in which “some forty people got taken back to Libya, forty drowned and we had sixty on our ship,” including a two-year-old boy who could not be resuscitated and whose corpse had to be kept in the freezer: “Europe didn’t give us a port of safety so we had to bob up and down in international waters for several days with that boy in the freezer, with his mother onboard, and you were really wondering what you are going to tell that woman whose child is in your freezer about the Nobel peace prize-winning European Union.”
On World Refugee Day 2019, as the world continues to drown in an ocean of brutality, we’re in dire need of a major rescue operation.