Sea Rescue as Care


Piracy in the early eighteenth century was, at bottom, a struggle for life against socially organized death.1

This definition of piracy, however, was surely not the one that former Italian minister of interior Matteo Salvini had in mind, when he proclaimed “yet another act of Piracy by an outlaw organization”, in June 2019, after the crew of Sea-Watch 3 had rescued 52 people from a rubber boat in distress.2 And yet, the struggle that has been going on for five years in the central Mediterranean Sea is just that: a struggle for life against socially organized death. European states have created a zone at their margins, where all their proclaimed values, their human and civil rights are suspended; a state of exception that reduces the sea to a weapon, people to bargaining chips – and the fluid southern frontier of EUrope to the deadliest border in the world.3

The European activists who oppose this state of exception are of course neither pirates in the historical, nor in the legal or ideational sense: If, according to Markus Rediker, historical piracy was a (class) struggle for the pirate’s own life, which presupposed sheer defiance of death itself4, then civil sea rescue activism is primarily a fight in solidarity, starting off from the privileged position that it is not the activist’s own life that is at stake. Nonetheless, the parallels that Matteo Salvini’s repeated accusations of piracy unintentionally point to can’t be ignored when looking at civil sea rescue as an act of pirate care: “the term pirate has been highly ideological from antiquity forward, functioning more or less as the maritime equivalent of barbarianβ€”that is, anyone who was an enemy of the Romans."5

While the sea rescuers were surely declared public enemy Numero Uno in Rome, at least in the first half of 2019, the question arises; does their intervention represent a modern act of symbolic piracy (in the best sense)? Or, in other words: can humanitarian emergency aid also be an act of political resistance? The state’s reaction surely suggests so. While the Atlantic pirates of the golden age – a tellingly short time from 1716 until 1727 – were quickly faced with a campaign of terror by “royal officials, attorneys, merchants, publicists, clergymen, and writers who created, through proclamations, legal briefs, petitions, pamphlets, sermons, and newspaper articles, an image of the pirate that would legitimate his annihilation”6 the modern nation states of the EU undertook their very own campaign to ‘cleanse the seas’. But let’s start from the beginning.

From Illegal Immigration to Humanitarian Border Management

After heavily relying on low-cost migrant labour in the years after the second world war, due to reconstruction and a lack of ‘manpower’, the Oil Shock in 1973 turned the tables and brought the economical boom to an abrupt end. One of the reactions of the countries affected was to restrict labour immigration7. The tightening of the visa regime not only laid the foundation for today’s European border policy – and thus the so-called “refugee crisis in the Mediterranean” – but also set its constitutive dispositif: illegality. As Philippe Fargues summed it up for the International Organization for Migration (IOM): “It is common sense to state that illegality is a product of how legality is defined and the law enforced, and this applies to migration just as to any other phenomenon.”

The illegalisation however, didn’t stop the migratory flow, for reasons which Italian journalist and human rights activist Gabriele del Grande tried to explain to former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, in simple capitalist terms: “[T]here are two market laws that continue to be ignored. The first is that demand generates supply. The second is that prohibition supports the mafias. In other words, as long as someone is willing to pay to travel from Africa to Europe, someone will offer them the opportunity to do so. And if the airlines won’t do it, the smugglers will."8

Consequently, since the mid 1970s far more than 2.5 million 9 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea “illegally” on three main routes: The Western Route, with only 15 kilometres from northern Morocco to southern Spain. The Eastern Route, from Turkey to Greece, particularly busy between 2014 and 2016, when over a million refugees, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, beat their way towards central Europe. And the Central Mediterranean Route, which actually includes a number of long-distance routes through the Sicilian Channel, with Libya as the main hub of embarkation. 10

The Central Mediterranean route is by far the most dangerous passage, with more than 15.900 official reported deaths, since 2014, compared to 3.476 in the west and east, making it the deadliest border crossing in the world. 11 (At the same time, there are indications that the unknown number of lives lost in the Sahara, on the way to the Mediterranean Sea, could be even higher.12)

The EU’s reaction to the mass dying on their southern border changed over time, as Paolo Cuttitta outlines: “until 2013 state authorities in the Mediterranean used to systematically discourage all seafarers – mainly fishing boats and cargoes – from accomplishing their duty to rescue people in distress at sea, in the frame of what has been called the ‘governing of indifference’"13. By the end of 2013 however, a few days after the shipwreck of October 3, which left around 390 dead off Lampedusa and sparked international concern, Italy launched its own large-scale sea rescue operation. Named after an ancient Roman term for the Mediterranean – Mare Nostrum: Our Sea – it was “the most significant step in the process of institutional humanitarianization of the EU sea border, in whose framework humanitarian arguments are deployed to support exclusionary policies and practices.” 14

Due to major success – the efforts of the Italian navy and coast guards led to the safe arrival of over 150.000 people within the first year – the operation was quickly cancelled and replaced with a less efficient successor (Frontex Triton).

From Depoliticisation to Repoliticisation

For many people within the sea rescue movement, and many observers, the past five years have been a constant revelation about the EU states’ intentions: whereas initially, from the tragic boat accident in October 2013 until the “refugee crisis” in 2015, one could still assume incompetence of European institutions, the developments in the years since have patently shown that supposed accidents and catastrophes were no accidents and catastrophes whatsoever. Everything from boats sinking, over thousands upon thousands dying on the externalized EU-borders,15 to further thousands held captive on Greek islands; all of that was intentional or, at the very least, accepted with approval. “It should act as a deterrent for other refugees; it should stop them from fleeing. Europe is using dead refugees to shield itself from refugees."16

The civilian sea rescue didn’t change this policy. In fact, it might have even assisted it, in so far as it provided operational support and – before it started to be criminalised – it provided a humanitarian and de-politicising legitimation to the very border regime it sought to criticize.17 However, from the very beginning there have also been re-politicising, resistant elements in the NGO’s modus operandi. Cuttitta concretely names their constant role as uneasy witnesses, Sea-Watch’s long-time refusal to take people in distress aboard their own ship, and instead only secure the scene and wait for state actors to do their job, finalize the rescue and bring the survivors to land.18 The re-politicising tendency prevailed particularly in the first half of 2019, in the form of a constant and open confrontation with authorities and repeated breach of the Italian port entry restrictions.

Forensic Oceanography in its inquiry Blaming the Rescuers reached a less ambivalent conclusion. It suggests that the resistant character of sea rescue is already inscribed in the act itself, irrespective of its discursive implications – in so far as this act keeps the Mediterranean route open.19

Both Cuttitta and Forensic Oceanography’s inquiries, however, disregard the symbolic aspect: a ship, as Michel Foucault argued, can not be reduced to its functional aspect. It also offers “the greatest reserve of the imagination."20

Relatively independent from how de-politicising the embedding of civilian sea rescue into a - what might have at the time seemed humanitarian - border management regime, the image of the rescue ship was nonetheless seized upon by a number of re-politicising movements. As Beppe Caccia and Sandro Mezzadra of Mediterranea write: “Our ship has been appropriated and somehow reinvented from a wide range of standpoints that go from occupied social centers to parishes, universities and schools, from small town circles to metropolitan assemblies."21

The most recent culmination of that story, the arrest of Carola Rackete, added a strong, rebellious-feminist layer to the projection screen, as Georg Seeßlen outlined in Jungle World: First, it was a man who fared the seas and ventured into the world, leaving his docile and lamenting wife back home on firm land. But now it is men that stay back lamenting […] Vile, hysterical men that barricade themselves up with their followers in ever narrower confines and that understand less and less of the world that surrounds them the more they get worked up by it – the world of far-travelled, brave, cool and autarchic women-captains. For sure, the reality is more complicated than that, and after all it is the bad guys that mostly win. But at least we again have a story that instils hope and awakens the spirit of rebellion to life.22

Ships such as Aquarius, Mare Jonio, Iuventa or Sea-Watch 3 have not only served as vessels for people but also as a vessel for an idea of another Europe – a Europe of solidarity. As such they hold enormous significance and resistant character, or in Foucault’s words: “in civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.” 23

Has sessions:


Eros Moretti & Eralba Cela,2014.β€˜A brief history of Mediterranean migrations’. , p. 120 f

  1. Marcus Rediker,2004.β€˜Villains of all nations: Atlantic pirates in the golden age’.Verso. p.153 ↩︎

  2. globalist,0101.β€˜Salvini senza freni sulla Sea Watch: "sono pirati fuori legge"’. , author’s translation (Accessed: 06.01.2020) ↩︎

  3. Philippe Fargues,2017.β€˜Four decades of cross-Mediterranean undocumented migration to Europe: a review of the evidence’. , p.1 ↩︎

  4. Rediker, p.148 ↩︎

  5. Ibid., p. 174 ↩︎

  6. Ibid. ↩︎

  7. ↩︎
  8. Gabriele Del Grande,0101.β€˜Lettera al Ministro dell'Interno Matteo Salvini... - Gabriele Del Grande’. (Accessed: 02.05.2020) ↩︎

  9. Philippe Fargues,2017.β€˜Four decades of cross-Mediterranean undocumented migration to Europe: a review of the evidence’. , p. 9 ↩︎

  10. Ibid. ↩︎

  11. IOM: Missing Migrants Project. Tracking Deaths Along Migratory Routes. International Organization for Migration, (Accessed: 28.12.2019) ↩︎

  12. Tom Miles & Stephanie Nebehay,2017.β€˜Migrant deaths in the Sahara likely twice Mediterranean toll: U.N.’. (Accessed: 10.12.2019) ↩︎

  13. Paolo Cuttitta,2018.β€˜Repoliticization Through Search and Rescue? Humanitarian NGOs and Migration Management in the Central Mediterranean’. , p. 642 ↩︎

  14. Ibid., p. 638 ↩︎

  15. Christian Jakob et al.: Migration Control, in: taz, June 2017, (Accessed: 08/01/2020) ↩︎

  16. Heribert Prantl,0101.β€˜Asylpolitik - Warum die EU FlΓΌchtlinge tΓΆtet - Politik -’. (Accessed: 13/10/2019) ↩︎

  17. Cuttitta 2018, p. 639 ↩︎

  18. Ibid., p. 643 f ↩︎

  19. Forensic Oceanography, 2018, ↩︎

  20. Michel Foucault,1986.β€˜Of other spaces’. p. 27 ↩︎

  21. Caccia & Mezzadra, 2018 ↩︎

  22. Georg Seeßlen,0101.β€˜Oh Captain, mein Captain’. (Accessed: 08/01/2020) ↩︎

  23. Foucault 1984, p. 27 ↩︎