The Mediterranean Sea became the world’s deadliest passageway as tens of thousands of people fleeing war and repression in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia lost their lives making the journey to Europe. As political disagreement grew within the EU, the focus shifted in 2018 from that of help and rescue of stranded refugees to that of deterrence.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that between 2014 and 2017 more than 14,500 individuals died attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea. With no safe and legal means of entry to Europe, migrants crowd into plastic boats or dinghies and set sail from the Libyan or Tunisian coast for Italy or Greece. The overcrowded and sub-standard vessels lack emergency provisions, and prove to be no match for the slightest change in sea currents or bad weather.
During a peak in the crisis in 2015, the media was bombarded with stories of harrowing escapes from capsized boats and images of lifeless bodies pulled from the water. Initially, rescues organized by the EU,NGOs, and residents frequently went out to sea to bring migrants safely to shore. Over time, the EU began to criminalize civilian and NGO maritime rescue missions, claiming that they were a pull factor for migration. In the summer of 2018, two NGO rescue ships, carrying 630 and 59 migrants respectively, spent days stranded at sea, when Italy and Malta refused them port access. The ships were eventually allowed to dock in Spanish ports.
Things reached a new low point in 2018 when the debate began to rise on whether Europe should let individuals die at sea to deter others from coming. After a steady decline beginning in 2016, deaths along the Mediterranean sharply increased in 2018, with the worst case occurring in June when 600 individuals drowned. Appalled by these developments, activists in Germany organized the Seebrücke (pier) campaign, calling on the EU to allow safe passage and port access to rescue ships.