With silent gestures, everyone enters the cafeteria. It looked like their bodies were still asleep. We would gather in the kitchen to prepare a quick coffee before the meeting. The crew of the ship consisted of 25 people, including volunteers and contractors. We would sit around tables and the meeting would begin. Before 7am, the planning of the day began. Through the darkness of the little door, I tried to guess when the sun would rise and distracted myself from the directions of the meeting. We were in the Port of Burriana, Spain, on a ship that rescues people in the Mediterranean Sea. The ship needed structural repairs to restart work. There was no time to be wasted. A day without rescue could result in more lives being lost.
I have long been perplexed by the information coming in about the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. People who try to reach Europe in precarious boats. Many die, disappearing into the sea, turning the Mediterranean into the largest mass grave of contemporary times. To try to understand how Europe makes the impossible possible once again and yet normalises its political aberrations, I volunteered as a kitchen helper on a rescue ship.
At the height of the migration crisis, there were initiatives by European states to carry out the rescues. But it did not take long for the political orientation to change radically. They didn’t just suspend rescue operations. Policies of border control and denial of entry have intensified in recent years. In the absolute absence of state policies aimed at saving people on the brink of life and death, an intense mobilisation of European civil society has begun. Numerous non-governmental organisations carry out rescue operations. In the Port of Burriana, there were the boats of the collectives Sea Punk, Sea Eye, Open Arms, Louise Michelle, and SOS Humanity I, where I did the volunteer work. This is just one of many ports where ships stop to make repairs. The time it takes to carry them out depends on the availability of the parts and labour.
In every port, anti-fascist flags could be seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and on Sea Punk’s own flagpole which held a banner reading “anti-fascist action”.
Persecution of NGOs
It was in the ship’s kitchen that I heard stories and tried to find answers to questions that distress me: How is it possible that the continent that invented human rights continues to leave people dying at sea and, in partnerships with Libya, causes deaths? During slavery, it was said that Europe was unaware of the atrocities committed in the colonies, but as historian Conrad points out in his book Tumbeiros, there are reports that the ships that trafficked people had an unbearable and unmistakable odour. It was impossible not to identify them even before they docked and not to know the horrors that had taken place in the colonies.
An estimated 85,000 people have lost their lives or are missing as a result of trying to cross the Mediterranean. Every day newspapers bring news of the deaths in the Mediterranean. It is not due to ignorance that deaths occur. It is an intentional policy that continues to improve its methods of managing the production of death of black people in the Mediterranean. What is demanded from the European community is already foreseen in international laws: the path to a safe and legal Europe; respect for the right to asylum; reception of people seeking protection in Europe.What is the difference between what happens in the Mediterranean today and with slavery and World War II? It has become impossible to manipulate the argument that the plight of these migrants is “not known”. If it is true that everyone knows what is happening in the Mediterranean, we are facing another sensitivity in which neither the argument of the right to life, nor the international laws that protect and guarantee the right to asylum, nor arguments of a religious order are sufficient to cause collective indignation. It seems like we are facing a reduction in the level of empathy. That’s what I’m calling a neo-fascist sensibility. That is, the criterion for analysing the emergence of fascism and its new resignifications is not in the election of a far-right candidate, but in the relationship that the states have with the other, the immigrant and the refugee. Such a relationship will change according to the racial phenotypes carried by the body asking for protection. We have seen European action towards Ukrainians and the contempt for the cries for help from the people who are led to die in the Mediterranean. Selective empathy towards the pain of the oppressed is fascism.
Italy has passed a decree criminalising NGOs that rescue stranded migrants. But this is not a new phenomenon. How can we not remember the numerous decrees of the Kingdom of Portugal, which criminalised free people who “harboured” (gave protection to) fugitive enslaved people?
After each rescue operation, permission is required to disembark the survivors at a crossing. The delay in this authorisation leads to the exhaustion of everyone on the ship. Vessels can also be sent to a port further away, which may require more days of travel, and cause greater pain. This sends an unspoken message: “We will do everything not to facilitate the rescue of those people.”
Another mechanism to prevent African immigrants from entering Europe is the interception of boats at sea. They are then forced to return to Libya, under the terms of a mutual agreement between the Libyan Coast Guard and the Italian government. In 2021, more than 22,500 children, women and men who fled across the Mediterranean were intercepted.
Life and death in the blink of an eye
Rocco, an Italian from Sicily, has helped rescue hundreds of people. He recalls that in one of the operations he was warned that there was a child on board,. Born just before the rescue vessel arrived, the baby still had its umbilical cord keeping it connected to its exhausted mother. Life and death are a fine line.
Sometimes it is necessary to rescue corpses and this is happening ever more so.
For some rescue workers, in spite of all their efforts, operations fail and they watch as migrants are swallowed by the waters and disappear. How do they deal with the pain? I ask. With a lot of therapy, came the response. But the nightmares remain.
Europe’s borders have never been so controlled. Racism remains the bane of these states’ policies – not the defence of human rights, as they try to make us believe.
For Europe, the spectre is a black person. The Mediterranean routes are similar to the dangerous escape routes of enslaved people in the southern United States, known as the Underground Railroad, with border patrols and hunters of enslaved people lurking in their every move. Like the Railroad, which had the solidarity work of the abolitionists, the Mediterranean coexists with dozens of boats dedicated to saving lives. They are, however, insufficient.
My mind writhes around some questions: What can we do from Brazil? How can we create mechanisms of rapprochement in universities and in social movements to bring the drama of the Mediterranean closer? How can the government and parliamentarians, who identify with the human rights agenda and the anti-racist struggle, include in their actions this political tragedy that happens before our eyes? What happens in the Mediterranean is not far from us. The Black Atlantic is in continuity with the Black Mediterranean.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.