In the past months, tensions surrounding European refugee policy have heightened – even though there has been a marked decrease of arrivals compared to past years. According to UNHCR, in 2018 at least 2275 people drowned during their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Although the absolute number of victims has significantly gone down because far fewer people dare braving the dangerous passage, the actual risk of drowning has increased considerably due to a lack of sea rescues: In 2018, one in fifteen people drowned on route between Libya and Europe. This makes the Mediterranean the most dangerous sea passage in the world.
We spoke to Marie von Manteuffel from Ärzte ohne Grenzen e.V. (Doctors Without Borders) about the situation on the Mediterranean and the emergency plan for the sea rescue, allocation, and reception of migrants and refugees.
FES: The EU member states have terminated their common European naval operation, Operation Sophia, and are now restricting their activities to air surveillance and supporting the Libyan coastguard. How many civil search and rescue ships are currently deployed on the Mediterranean? How does the cooperation with the Libyan coastguard work?
Marie von Manteuffel: At the moment, only the SeaWatch3 is patrolling the central Mediterranean. Other organizations are checking the possibility of returning to the Mediterranean. However, everyone is very aware of the still existing risk involved: Port blockades, seizure of ships, deflagging – and also the difficulties regarding the cooperation with the Libyan coastguard. These begin with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre which was established last summer in Tripoli and which is now officially responsible for the coordination of rescues in the Libyan Search and Rescue (SAR) zone. Phone calls are not answered, or if they are, the person on the other end of the line cannot speak English. The consequence is that rescue missions are often delayed by several hours. Rescuers are not permitted to intervene during this time. The already tense situation is thus unnecessarily exacerbated. People who have been waiting for hours to be rescued panic, which can lead to deaths.
If people who are fleeing Libya are intercepted up by the Libyan coast guard, they are brought right back to where they are under threat of violence and totally without protection. Usually they will be imprisoned in one of the official internment camps. Our colleagues on the ground report catastrophic conditions. Again and again, imprisoned migrants and refugees disappear without a trace and are subjected to violence and extortion. At the same time, combat operations in Tripoli and its surroundings are continuing. Indiscriminate shelling as well as aerial strikes in densely populated areas of Tripoli are common. The around 3000 arbitrarily imprisoned migrants and refugees have no recourse from this situation. The direct or indirect refoulement of refugees back to Libya is utterly unacceptable and totally without justification.
Extreme right-wing and right-wing populist forces in Europe have used Negative campaigning to fuel fear. They are spreading the myth of an “African invasion” and are promoting the criminalization of sea rescues. How has this affected civil sea rescue?
The humanitarian responsibility  to rescue people in distress at sea and to bring them to safety is simple at its core. In contrast, the viciousness with which this simple act of humanity has been attacked in the past years, and with which sea rescuers are slandered, is hard to take. What is especially disappointing is that EU member state's governments are not immune to these blatant attempts of criminalization; in fact, some of them have taken up an active role. Italy is closing its ports and heaping criminal proceedings upon rescuers, going as far as the accusation of incorrect waste separation on Sicily. However, the German Federal Government as well has done little to effectively counteract this trend.
The European states are focussing on isolationism and on externalizing the responsibility to protect to beyond European external borders. Together with 250 civil society organizations, Ärzte ohne Grenzen have written an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and demand an “emergency plan for the sea rescue, allocation, and reception of migrants and refugees”. What are the concrete steps you have articulated in this plan?
Firstly, our open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel shows that there is a broad consensus in German civil society against isolationism and xenophobia. Not only is this a strong signal, but it also shows exactly what we feel is needed right now: To overcome silo mentality, both in politics and civil society, as well as a solution-oriented cooperation between all those involved. Together, we demand interlinked political measures both in terms of time and geography:
What causes in particular should the German federal government champion within the EU?
In our opinion, Germany has a pivotal role, especially when it comes to the issue of fair allocation of rescued persons within the EU. Regarding the federal government, we hold particularly the SPD responsible to advocate for a humane access to asylum proceedings on safe ground. Because there are currently no such safe places in the North African countries bordering the Mediterranean, an effective access to European asylum proceedings must be enabled. At the end of days or weeks of negotiations regarding the allocation of individual rescued persons, Germany too agreed to receive some people. We acknowledge this, but we still maintain that “haggling” about the reception of individuals is disgraceful. Here, we expect a clear position from foreign secretary Heiko Maas regarding a European allocation mechanism and against the continuing forced return of refugees to Libya.
 Article 98 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974, Chapter V.
 Already at the beginning of 2017, the Federal Foreign Office itself spoke of “most grave, systematic human rights violations” and of “concentration camp-like conditions” in the private internment camps: https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/libyen-kz-aehnliche-verhaeltnisse-fuer-fluechtlinge-laut-bericht-beklagt-a-1132184.html.