The Savior’s Dilemma

by ptinti

Foreign Policy

Are naval search-and-rescue operations saving migrants’ lives — or just encouraging them to take greater risks?

TRIPOLI, Libya — At 7:42 a.m. on May 10, Sea-Watch, a German aid organization that conducts search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean just outside Libya’s territorial waters, got word of a migrant boat in distress. The crew aboard the 100-foot rescue vessel sprang into action, dispatching speedboats to bring life jackets to the more than 350 migrants who were packed into a rickety wooden boat. But just as aid workers were preparing to begin the rescue operation, a battleship commanded by the Libyan navy cut their vessel off, narrowly avoiding a high-speed collision.

Upon reaching the migrant boat, the commander of the Libyan battleship, Abujella Abdul-Bari, cocked his pistol and pointed it at the migrants in a scene that was captured by a German film crew on board. Rescuers from Sea-Watch disengaged immediately, afraid that the confusion could lead to migrant deaths, as had happened in a similar incident between Sea-Watch and the Libyan coast guard in October 2016. Had things played out only slightly differently that morning, the roughly 400 migrants on board the distressed boat would have been on their way to Europe; instead, they were headed back to the country they had risked everything to flee.

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