In this interview, Caroline Abu Sa’Da, General Director of SOS MEDITERRANEE Suisse,
discusses search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, in particular those conducted
by her organisation. She explains that as a European citizen movement, SOS MEDITERRANEE has
adopted a hybrid and politicised approach, which represents a new kind of humanitarian
engagement. And she reflects on the challenges of protecting and supporting those crossing the
London, 10 September 2018
Since 2015, more than one and a half million people have traversed the Mediterranean, seeking
asylum in Europe. The EU has been negotiating their screening and resettlement outside of Europe.
European governments have closed some ports and borders to them. And neofascist groups from
across Europe have rallied on the ground and online to prevent their entry. Thousands have died
Multinational NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children have
carried out search-and-rescue missions. But it is citizen movements that have been at the
forefront of the emergency response. Similarly inspired by cosmopolitan ideals, these groups tend
to use more political language than conventional NGOs, presenting their relief activities as a
form of direct resistance to nationalist politics and xenophobia. As liberal humanitarianism is
challenged in its European heartland, they are developing – through practice – a
new model of humanitarian engagement.
SOS MEDITERRANEE is an ad hoc citizen initiative founded in 2015 to prevent the death of people
crossing the Med. Caroline Abu Sa’Da is General Director of its Swiss branch.
Juliano Fiori: SOS is very much a product of contemporary Europe. It’s a
civic response to refugees and migrants in the Med but also to nationalistic politics, or to the
return of nationalist movements to the forefront of European politics. How, then, does SOS differ
from European humanitarian NGOs founded in past decades?
Caroline Abu Sa’Da: SOS is a European citizen movement. Besides our
search-and-rescue activities, we aim to give to the greatest number of people access to
information – facts – on the situation in the Mediterranean, so that they at least
are able to form their own judgement on it. They can then decide whether they have a
responsibility. Definitely the need is there.
After eleven years with MSF, it was really this kind of political and social engagement that
interested me. SOS is a ‘hydroponic NGO’, if I may put it like that –
nourished from below. Working with the organisation in Switzerland is particularly interesting,
given that the country is not very open-minded on migration. It has really been a challenge to
see how exactly we can engage with and mobilise people.
SOS was not conceived as something to exist forever. It is an ad hoc initiative, which will
stop as soon as there is an institutionalised, legal way for people to cross the Mediterranean to
seek asylum without drowning. So it’s really not built as an NGO. It’s a gathering
of people from different backgrounds who are willing to work together for a very specific reason,
and it will be dismantled as soon as the political answer is considered satisfactory, even if
that takes a while.
JF: SOS might, then, be considered part of a new movement in emergency response,
which includes Alarm Phone, Sea Watch and Open Arms. But its operational approach bears some
similarity to that of older humanitarian NGOs. Indeed, it works closely with Médecins Sans
CAS: Yes, we are in touch with Open Arms, Sea Watch and so on, but SOS sits
somewhere between citizen activism and humanitarian work. Other search-and-rescue groups,
particularly those in Germany, are much more involved in discussing asylum systems in Europe,
while our focus is rescue and testimony.
Most of the time, we are in reactive mode; it is an emergency mission but of a different kind.
Right before leaving MSF for SOS, I was Head of Mission for Syria and Iraq, overseeing operations
in Mosul. The level of intensity since I started with SOS is the same. But SOS is smaller. The
team on board the Aquarius [the rescue ship operated by SOS and MSF] never includes more than
fifteen people and our budget is only 4 million euros. It is mobilisation on land, rather than
operational issues at sea, that take most time.
JF: How has SOS positioned itself politically in relation to European governments
and institutions that have sought to prevent people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe?
CAS: What I thought was interesting about SOS when I joined was how it provided an
opportunity for people, particularly young people, to engage politically on issues of migration
but outside of political parties. We have had a lot of people aged 20–35, who have been
willing to get involved because they don’t identify with political parties on this topic,
they want to do something about it and they can’t necessarily join NGOs like MSF because
they don’t have professional experience in humanitarian work. They specifically want to do
something in Europe rather than going to Bangladesh or Syria or Iraq. It is really this idea of
dealing with a European issue, in Europe, in a way that might bring about political change,
without being embedded in a political party.
This is a new type of political engagement and politics – different to that which
inspired previous generations of humanitarian workers. SOS acknowledges the fact that dealing
with migration today in Europe is extremely political. It points to existing maritime law and
international humanitarian law to remind states of their obligations. And what’s really
interesting since the end of June is that we have ended up in a situation in which rogue European
states are deliberately throwing the law to the dogs. Now we know exactly what’s going on
in Libya. We know that European states are responsible for refoulement, sending
people back to torture, rape and detention in Libya. This is completely unlawful but European
institutions are endorsing it. So SOS says: ‘No! Actually, according to international law,
these are the obligations of states.’ It’s kind of a vigilante of the
Right now, my problem with NGOs like MSF and Save the Children and Oxfam is not what they do
out in the field. It is that their staff generally don’t act as citizens. They go out to
Uganda or DRC or whatever but they don’t engage with politics in their own home countries.
Perhaps this is a result of the way NGO workers see themselves. My PhD research was on
‘NGO-isation’ in Palestine, which has had a depoliticising effect. SOS is an
emergency initiative that nonetheless provides opportunity for people who seek to engage
JF: The arrival of more than one and a half million refugees and migrants on the
shores of Europe since 2015 has tested the idea of a ‘humanitarian Europe’. It has
tested the self-identity of many Europeans. To what extent do these younger activists see their
political engagement as part of a struggle against ethno-nationalisms to define European
CAS: Switzerland is interesting in this regard. During the Yugoslav War, a lot of
people – hundreds of thousands – came to Switzerland seeking asylum. Many of them
were later granted Swiss nationality. They were well integrated. Nothing like that has happened
since in Switzerland. Those born after the mid 1990s – about half of the people working
for SOS in Switzerland today – have never seen these supposedly ‘European
principles’ in action. So for them, it’s more about defining the kind of society in
which they actually want to live.
Although Switzerland has always had an ambiguous and difficult relationship with the EU, the
Swiss see themselves as defending European values and, particularly, humanitarian law. But Swiss
neutrality has a mixed legacy. Swiss youths today question whether their country’s
supposed neutrality is a denial of responsibility. Where does neutrality end and cowardice start?
So now they say: ‘No, we’re not going to stand by and watch people suffering
without getting involved. We’re not going to allow our identity to be defined by others
who would deny these people’s rights.’
JF: To what extent do these ‘others’ – presumably opponents
of search-and-rescue missions in the Med – pose direct challenges to the work SOS is
CAS: The Defend Europe people actually aren’t much of a burden. They
organise a demonstration every time we arrive somewhere, and they are extremely active on social
networks – much more so than we are, that’s for sure. When we publish something on
Facebook or Twitter, we end up with thousands of comments from them. I’ve gone from
working with MSF in highly insecure environments, where there are IEDs and shootouts, to
receiving death threats on social media. It’s not that easy to handle and it can take a
toll on morale. But these people aren’t really an operational impediment.
The much bigger problem is that states and the EU are ignoring conventions and laws. The Dublin
Regulation – for what it’s worth – is being undermined. It is now, in
Europe, that the refugee protection regime is being buried. In June , the Aquarius,
carrying 630 people to Europe, was refused entry to Italian ports. France has also prevented
people from disembarking from ships docked at its ports. The deals that were made with Libya and
Turkey [for the return of migrants and refugees] have caused a domino effect. Other countries are
increasingly turning refugees away. And UNHCR doesn’t seem prepared to stand against this.
There’s no solidarity. Solidarity and burden-sharing and protection are dead.
JF: If this is the case, if we are witnessing the death of the international
protection regime that sets the terms for responses to forced displacement, what should be the
response of those who support liberal humanitarian institutions?
CAS: Probably the only response currently possible is to fight back, to try to
maintain the international protection regime – to campaign for humane and dignified
responses to forced displacement in a broad citizen movement that might force states, including
via elections, to stick to their responsibilities.
This paper provides a critical analysis of post-humanitarianism with reference to adaptive
design. At a time when precarity has become a global phenomenon, the design principle has
sidelined the need for, or even the possibility of, political change. Rather than working to
eliminate precarity, post-humanitarianism is implicated in its reproduction and governance.
Central here is a historic change in how the human condition is understood. The rational
Homo economicus of modernism has been replaced by progressive
neoliberalism’s cognitively challenged and necessarily ignorant Homo
inscius. Solidarity with the vulnerable has given way to conditional empathy. Rather
than structural outcomes to be protected against, not only are humanitarian crises now seen as
unavoidable, they have become positively developmental. Post-humanitarianism no longer provides
material assistance – its aim is to change the behaviour of the precariat in order to
optimise its social reproduction. Together with the construction of logistical mega-corridors,
this process is part of late-capitalism’s incorporation of the vast informal economies
of the global South. Building on progressive neoliberalism’s antipathy towards formal
structures and professional standards, through a combination of behavioural economics,
cognitive manipulation and smart technology, post-humanitarianism is actively involved in the
elimination of the very power to resist.
This article explores the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees’ (UNRWA)
responses to the US Government’s decision to dramatically cut its financial
contributions to the Agency in 2018. Acknowledging the complexities of the fast-moving changes
and dilemmas faced by UNRWA and Palestinian refugees, this article focuses specifically on the
events that unfolded in the first six months of 2018. Through a multiscalar analysis, I start
by situating UNRWA’s key responses as they have played out on the international stage
through a high-profile fundraising campaign (#DignityIsPriceless). I then develop a close
reading of three regional-level UNRWA circulars disseminated to UNRWA staff pertaining to the
provision of maternal and neonatal health services, and to Palestinian UNRWA staff
members’ employment and pension rights. Against the backdrop of the impact of
UNRWA’s responses across the region, I subsequently examine how these operational
changes have been experienced and conceptualised by Palestinians living in refugee camps in
Lebanon, noting that those experiences must be analysed within the broader context of
protracted displacement, enforced immobility and overlapping displacement.
The modern global humanitarian system takes the form it does because it is underpinned by
liberal world order. Now the viability of global liberal institutions is increasingly in doubt,
a backlash against humanitarianism (and human rights) has gained momentum. I will argue that
without liberal world order, global humanitarianism as we currently understand it is
impossible, confronting humanitarians with an existential choice: how might they function in a
world which doesn’t have liberal institutions at its core? The version of global
humanitarianism with which we are familiar might not survive this transition, but maybe other
forms of humanitarian action will emerge. What comes next might not meet the hopes of
today’s humanitarians, however. The humanitarian alliance with liberalism is no
accident, and if the world is less liberal, its version of humanitarian action is likely to be
less liberal too. Nevertheless, humanitarianism will fare better than its humanist twin, human
rights, in this new world.
This article explores the significance to the inter-state capitalist system of the new US
national security strategy, as defined by the Donald Trump administration on 17 December 2017.
By looking beyond the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of President Trump, we see that this
strategy represents a break, not only with the strategies of recent US administrations but also
with a longer tradition in US foreign policy. This article proposes that the supposed crisis of
‘liberal order’ is a direct and inevitable result of the expansion and success of
the inter-state capitalist system. To explain the strategy of the US in this scenario, the
article adopts an unorthodox approach, analysing the myth of the Tower of Babel.