Migration

IUVENTA: Humanity on trial

Activists saved 14,000 lives on the Mediterranean. Now, they stand accused of "aiding and abetting unauthorized immigration".
"Europe is indefensible," Aimé Césaire wrote more than 70 years ago, reflecting on the decadence of a civilisation whose history has produced so much violence. Today, as Europe puts humanity on trial, Césaire’s words ring out with renewed clarity.
"Europe is indefensible," Aimé Césaire wrote more than 70 years ago, reflecting on the decadence of a civilisation whose history has produced so much violence. Today, as Europe puts humanity on trial, Césaire’s words ring out with renewed clarity.

On 2 August 2017, Italian authorities seized the IUVENTA, our search and rescue ship. We, a group of young students and activists from Germany, had started this journey by earning our first donations selling cookies and second-hand clothes at a flea market.  Between the summer of 2016 and the IUVENTA's seizure, we had rescued more than 14,000 people who had embarked on the dangerous journey across the deadliest border in the world, the Central Mediterranean Route to Europe.

Now, our comrades stand accused of "aiding and abetting unauthorized immigration". These charges are based on the testimony of a former police officer who worked as a security guard on another rescue ship. He acted as a personal spy for the far-right leader of the racist Lega Nord party who would later go on to become Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini.

The accusations set off an extended campaign of persecution at the hands of the Italian state. Before the IUVENTA was seized, prosecutors had authorised a year-long surveillance operation. Italian police wiretapped our ship and listened in on phone calls between journalists and their sources. Not even confidential conversations between lawyers and their defendants were safe. Despite being repeatedly debunked, the charges stuck. 

After five years in a legal limbo, the first preliminary hearing of this case will be heard in court on 21 May 2022. Four members of the IUVENTA crew — and 17 former and current employees of Médecins sans Frontieres and Save the Children — are facing trial. If sentenced, they each face up to 20 years in prison and €15,000 in fines for each of the 14,000 people rescued. 

European states not only misuse criminal law to stop activists from rescuing people at sea, they also use it to terrorise people on the move. Italy and Greece have resorted to sham trials to convict thousands of people of being smugglers. In Greece, trials of those being accused of smuggling "average only 38 minutes in length, leading to an average sentence of 44 years and fines over 370.000 Euro."

The rescue missions the IUVENTA undertook were coordinated with the Italian Coast Guard. Our crews acted in full compliance with instructions from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center. We played by the rules while European states continue to break them at will. We stand accused of cooperating with smugglers, yet the European Union and its member states finance, equip, train and even coordinate criminal groups to do the dirty work of stopping boats from Libya for them. The so-called Libyan Coast Guard is a collection of militias that have been accused of crimes against humanity, slavery, extortion and running "concentration camps" for the detention of people on the move. There has not been a single day since 2015 when international law was not broken by the European Union at its borders.

Today, even politicians on the left want to convince us that a humane EU migration policy is possible. It is not — for two reasons. First, borders are inherently violent social constructs. Borders are always open, just not for everyone. What we are experiencing is a political fight about the permeability of borders. It is a question of who has the authority to decide who deserves to arrive on Europe's shores, and who does not; who gets to live, and who is condemned to die. The power to filter and segment people into these categories always produces violence, and its ultimate horizon is imprisonment and death. 

Secondly, European borders are a manifestation of its violent colonialism — past and present. The deaths and the daily violence at Europe’s borders are not an accident, but a core feature of EU migration policy. They are the result of decades of deliberate policy decisions by national and EU politicians. They constitute the logical conclusion of a system of domination and discrimination sustained by denying certain people their right to move through this world. European power manifests at its borders. It manifests in the power it projects outwards by forcing other states to confirm and uphold arbitrary lines of division — born in colonialism and sustained by racism — drawn up by Europe's power-hungry plunderers in centuries past. We cannot abstract Europe's contemporary border crisis from its history of violence, colonial conquest, and transatlantic slavery. The people who drown in the Mediterranean are just the latest victims of Europe’s violent politics of domination. 

The IUVENTA trial itself is also a reassertion of the border. We played by its unjust rules to save lives while European states flaunted their impunity. As they argue for their innocence, the trial will force the defendants to comply with the EU's twisted logic of what is legal and what is not. Activists are the ones on trial while Europe and its thugs beat and kill people on the move each day. "Europe is indefensible," Aimé Césaire wrote more than 70 years ago, reflecting on the decadence of a civilisation whose history has produced so much violence. Today, as Europe puts humanity on trial, Césaire’s words ring out with renewed clarity.

To learn more about the trial, you can find a detailed summary here.

Titus Molkenbur is a migration activist and researcher. He is a founding member of Jugend Rettet, a German NGO dedicated to rescuing lives at sea. He was the Head of Operations for their vessel the IUVENTA with which they rescued more than 14,000 people in the Central Mediterranean Sea before the ship was seized by Italian authorities.

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Author
Titus Molkenbur
Date
20.05.2022

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