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The Deadly Ping-Pong of Refugee Rescue at Sea

The Deadly Ping-Pong Of Refugee Rescue At Sea

In 2013, a boat capsized 61 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa killing 268 refugees including 60 children. It was another horrific example of the risks taken by so many families fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa. But recently released tapes of conversations with coast guard authorities reveal a deeper tragedy.[1]

During multiple phone calls over five hours a Syrian father is heard pleading with the Italian operator, We are dying, please, and the operator repeating, You have to call Malta, sir. The Maltese, in a call to Italian authorities, agreed to take control of the rescue mission but asked for the Italian vessel to assist because it was closer. The Italians refused, claiming it would render Italy in charge of transfer to the nearest coast[2]. The result was a deadly delay. During the global refugee crisis of the last few years, governments responses to sea crossings have been at best inadequate and at worst cynical. While there are clear obligations of seafarers to assist others at sea from ancient codes to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea[3] and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea[4] there is a grey area when it comes to disembarkation and safe harbor[5]. Delivering migrants to safety on land extends state responsibilities[6] and obliges the country to allow access to national asylum procedures. This blur in the international framework has also allowed states to deny disembarkation of those rescued at sea and leave many people afloat in dangerous limbo.

Unclear Code

For almost a year, I volunteered in various search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and I can say with firsthand experience that disputes akin to the conversation between Italy and Malta are not uncommon or unique to the Mediterranean. In 2001, the Tampa Affair[7] led to a diplomatic dispute when Australia refused entry to a Norwegian ship carrying 438 Afghan refugees rescued from the sea. The base of the United States wet feet, dry feet[8] policy is the apprehension or admission of Cubans who have entered territorial waters. Rohingya[9] and Bangladeshi boat migrants are routinely bounced from Indonesian to Malaysian to Thai authorities in what has been described as a humanitarian ping-pong[10]. A British navy flagship was only recently stuck at anchor in Sicily instead of joining a large planned search and rescue operation because the Italian and British governments[11] could not reach agreement on whether those rescued could be taken to Italian ports. Government responses to sea crossings have been at best inadequate and at worst cynical

Humanitarian organizations and sometimes merchant vessels[12] even while being denounced[13] for their actions are trying to cover the gaps created by the absence of state involvement, but far too many people slip through.

Migrant fatality numbers are generally conservative estimates, based on complicated and strict records, but the numbers are nonetheless gruesome. On average, two children drowned every day[14] in the eastern Mediterranean during the last quarter of 2015, when the Greek islands were welcoming more than 5,000 refugees a day[15]. Arrivals to Europe surpassed 1.2 million that year, dropping to 362,376 people in 2016. Another 34,000 are estimated to have arrived this year, 98 percent of whom came by sea[16]. Of the 1,486 migrant deaths[17] recorded worldwide in 2017, 962 perished in the Mediterranean. The Caribbean Sea has a long history of migration too and has seen 90 drownings[18] so far in 2017. Between 1982 and 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 222,315 persons[19] in the Caribbean or the adjacent Florida Straits and Mona Passage. For years, people escaping poverty and violence in the Horn of Africa have taken to the seas through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. In March of this year, a helicopter gunship of unclear origins opened fire on a boat full of Somali refugees[20] off the coast of Yemen killing 42.

The Rohingya, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, stateless and displaced by the tens of thousands[21], may endure months in the waters[22] of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers[23] before reaching Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Thousands of asylum seekers from Vietnam, Iran, Sri Lanka, China, and other countries also try to cross to Australia[24] by boat from Indonesia. The Australian government sends many to the island of Nauru[25] for holding until they can determine what to do with them. The list is endless, like the seas.

Safe Passage

Whether from migrants or responders, the phrase you hear most during a rescue is, Take the children, the children, the children first! If a baby falls in the water[26], the chances it survives are close to zero. So, it s babies and children first. Then the women. Then the men. Nonetheless, as the poem Home[27] says, No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.

Though the number of people arriving in Europe has declined from its peak in 2015, last year still saw a record number of people displaced globally and there are few indications that the underlying drivers of this disruption will change soon. Less than 10 percent[28] of the world s displaced population is in the United States or another wealthy European Union country and each day more figures are added to the numbers on the move. If a baby falls in the water, the chances it survives are close to zero

More than 20 million people in four countries[29] currently face famine or a credible risk of famine, thanks to a combination of drought and violence. The humanitarian costs[30] of the wars in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq seem intractable. At the same time, Venezuela[31] is facing an unprecedented political and economic crisis, prompting thousands of citizens to flee to neighboring countries. The lack of safe passage, absence of adequate humanitarian corridors[32], and craven resettlement programs (the UN expects to be able to place only 170,000 of 1.19 million people[33] in need of resettlement this year) leave few alternatives than the boats for many.

But the burden placed on coastal states from the high number of asylum claims is highly problematic. Resolving this legal grey area, which creates perverse incentives for coastal nations to ignore humanitarian responsibilities, should be a priority for any policymaker looking to address the global refugee crisis. One solution is to offer a wider range of international asylum procedures[34] once a rescue is performed and people are disembarked, instead of providing access only to the national asylum system of the host nation. This would reduce the reluctance of front-line states to take part in operations and also share the responsibility of assisting. One thing is clear: Safer passage, whether on sea, land, or in the air, is the only solution to stop turning our seas into aquatic graves. Efforts to simply stop arrivals as Italy and Libya[35] recently announced a deal to works towards have historically been unsuccessful. When one route is closed, another tends to open. Indeed, studies have shown that tighter controls on immigration benefit smuggling networks[36]. The more difficult crossings become, because of natural obstacles, such as the sea, or man-made obstacles, such as surveillance systems[37], the better it is for traffickers. Like on land, when walls are built, tunnels are dug[38].

A better solution to dealing with sea crossings should be an urgent international priority. It s not a call to morality, it s a call to reality.

Christina Psarra is a humanitarian worker from Greece and has participated in many search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. She is a Fulbright/ Humphrey Fellow and a junior scholar at the Wilson Center.

Sources: Amnesty International, Australian Government Department of Immigrant and Border Protection, CBC Radio-Canada, Death by Rescue, Duke University, European Commission, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, The Independent, International Organization for Migration, IRIN, M decins Sans Fronti res Canada, Migration Policy Institute, The New York Times, Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, Refugees Deeply, Reuters, Time, United Nations, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, United Nations Refugee Agency, The Washington Post.

Photo Credit: Refugee rescue near Lesvos, Greece, October 2015, used with permission courtesy of Christina Psarra.


  1. ^ recently released tapes (
  2. ^ in charge of transfer to the nearest coast (
  3. ^ UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (
  4. ^ International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (
  5. ^ safe harbor (
  6. ^ extends state responsibilities (
  7. ^ Tampa Affair (
  8. ^ wet feet, dry feet (
  9. ^ Rohingya (
  10. ^ humanitarian ping-pong (
  11. ^ Italian and British governments (
  12. ^ merchant vessels (
  13. ^ denounced (
  14. ^ two children drowned every day (
  15. ^ 5,000 refugees a day (
  16. ^ came by sea (
  17. ^ 1,486 migrant deaths (
  18. ^ 90 drownings (
  19. ^ 222,315 persons (
  20. ^ opened fire on a boat full of Somali refugees (
  21. ^ displaced by the tens of thousands (
  22. ^ endure months in the waters (
  23. ^ in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers (
  24. ^ Australia (
  25. ^ island of Nauru (
  26. ^ If a baby falls in the water (
  27. ^ Home (
  28. ^ 10 percent (
  29. ^ 20 million people in four countries (
  30. ^ humanitarian costs (
  31. ^ Venezuela (
  32. ^ humanitarian corridors (
  33. ^ only 170,000 of 1.19 million people (
  34. ^ international asylum procedures (
  35. ^ Italy and Libya (
  36. ^ benefit smuggling networks (
  37. ^ natural obstacles, such as the sea, or man-made obstacles, such as surveillance systems (
  38. ^ tunnels are dug (

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Virginia State Police mourns death of special agent

RICHMOND, Va. The Virginia State Police is mourning the loss of its 63rd member to die in the line of duty since 1932. Special Agent Michael T. Walter, 45, was shot on Friday and died from his injuries Saturday morning at VCU Medical Center in Richmond, according to the VSP. At 7:25 p.m. on Friday Walter and a Richmond Police Department officer observed a silver Chevrolet Cobalt pull up to the curb in the 1900 block of Redd Street. After parking behind the vehicle, the officers walked up to the car to talk to the driver.

As the RPD officer was talking with the driver, Walter approached the passenger side where a man was seated. Within moments, a single gunshot was heard and the man was running from the car on foot, according to the VSP. Walter had been shot. The Richmond officer, who was not injured in the shooting, immediately called for medical assistance and ran to Walter s aid. The driver of the car remained at the scene and was detained by Richmond Police.

A handgun was recovered at the scene near the Chevrolet Cobalt. The investigation by the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation s Culpeper Field Office remains ongoing, according to the VSP. Walter was assigned to the Virginia State Police BCI Richmond Field Office s Drug Enforcement Section and routinely partnered with the Richmond Police Department on investigative and patrol operatives. Immediately following the shooting, a perimeter was established within the neighborhood for the safety of residents, preservation of the crime scene and to search for the shooter. For the next 11 hours, law enforcement personnel from the Virginia State Police, Richmond Police, Henrico County Police, Hanover County Sheriff s Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms conducted a widespread search effort throughout the Metro-Richmond region.

Travis A. Ball, 27, of Richmond, was apprehended at a residence in Northumberland County shortly after 6 a.m. on Saturday. He was taken into custody without further incident. Ball was charged with shooting Walter. Ball is being held without bond on the arrest warrants obtained for him Friday night of one count of malicious wounding, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Additional charges are pending. Walter, a Powhatan County resident, is survived by his wife, Jaime, and his two sons and daughter, ages 14, nine and six, respectively.

Walter was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and graduated from Schalick High School in Elmer, New Jersey. He was a decorated veteran during his service with the United States Marine Corps from 1989 to 1994. Prior to joining the Virginia State Police in 1998, Walter worked as a security officer at MCV Hospital and served two years as an officer with the Virginia Division of Capitol Police. Walter graduated the Virginia State Police Academy as a member of the 98th Basic Session on May 21, 1999. His first patrol assignment after graduation was in the Virginia State Police Fairfax Division s Area 48 Office in Springfield. As a trooper, Walter transferred to the Richmond Division s Area 6 Office in Powhatan in 2005. A year later he joined the State Police Academy staff as an instructor with the Department s Canine Unit. In 2010, he was promoted to the rank of Special Agent with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation s Richmond Field Office Drug Enforcement Section; the position he held until his death.

Mike is well-known not only for his passion for criminal justice, but also for his commitment and passion to bettering the lives of local youth, said Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police Superintendent, at a Saturday morning press conference in Mosby Court. Mike founded and ran a nonprofit organization, the Powhatan Youth Wrestling and Community Development Corporation, through the Black Hawk gym. For him and Jamie, this wasn t about making a profit. It was about making a difference for disadvantaged youth by mentoring them and fostering their talents through physical fitness and sportsmanship.