Has ‘humanitarian space’
contracted or expanded?

Academic Essay
Submitted to The London School of Economics for the
MSc in Human Rights with Politics
by Rosário Frada


To mitigate deaths at sea, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) conduct Search and Rescue (SAR) activities, rescuing 110,000 forced migrants in the Central Mediterranean Sea between 2015 and 2017 (Guardia Costiera, 2017). According to Beauchamp (2008:16), humanitarian space is “fluid”, constantly adapting to humanitarian needs. This essay defines the Mediterranean humanitarian space as an operational environment in which humanitarian principles, International Refugee Law (IRL), International Maritime Law (IML) and International Human Rights may be upheld (IHR), security conditions met, humanitarians have access to distressed people, who in turn are able to receive assistance (Collinson and Elhawary, 2012).

The 2002 EU Directive indicates irregular migrants must be combatted to create an “area of freedom and security” (EC 2002:62); in 2021, 1838 died at sea, 20% more than 2020 (Euro- Med Monitor, 2022). SAR faces increasing securitization, leading to the following questions: Do extraordinary measures contract the Mediterranean humanitarian space, shape the humanitarian identity and threaten international solidarity? In a politicized area, should aid workers operate according to traditional humanitarian principles, and if so, how?

By drawing on the Copenhagen School’s Securitization Concept (SC) the above questions will be answered (Wæver’s, 1995). This essay exposes the underlying social construction of forced migrants as existential threats and SAR NGOs as “pull factors” attracting irregular migration. Securitizing efforts to fortify borders turn the Mediterranean into a discursive battlefield over the humanitarian identity and convert forced migrants into double victims, forced to flee and receiving inadequate assistance. However, this paper also analyses the ability of the humanitarian force to react, mobilize actors, and re-politicize the Mediterranean by taking a human-centric approach that defines migrants as securitization’s referent objects, socially deconstructing the migrant as a threat. Overall, it is argued that attempts to shrink the humanitarian space mostly result in a new modus operandi.

Statecentrism Over Law and Humanity

Migration has been rendered a national security issue threatening international security and peace that must be deterred (Messina, 2014; Huysmans, 2000). Efforts to control humanitarian work, seen as “pull factors”, through rising arrests of refugee aid workers have also been observed (Fekete, 2017; Maccaninco et al., 2018). The SC suggests threats are socially constructed to serve Europe’s security-orientation, becoming significant to study attempts to shrink the Mediterranean humanitarian space (Wæver’s, 1995). Securitization consists in 3 steps: (1) a securitizing actor identifies (2) an existential threat to a (3) valued referent object (ibid.). Through public support, measures beyond boundaries of normal politics are legitimized allowing political elites to transgress people’s liberties and disregard IML, IRL and IHR.

Europe increasingly uses criminal law to penalize humanitarians and fortify borders (Webber, 2017). SC enriches our understanding of Sarah Mardini and Séan Binder’s criminalisation, volunteers conducting SAR (Fallon, 2021). Although IML obliges people to rescue those in distress at sea (UNHCR, 2002), the volunteers were publicly charged by the Greek government with “people smuggling, espionage and membership of a criminal organisation” despite legal experts describing their  intervention  as  legal  and  moral (Smith, 2018). Would narrowing the “smuggler” definition help protect SAR humanitarians? To further threaten SAR, Sarah was denied entry into Greece for her Misdemeanours trial due to being a refugee, a “threat to national security” (Fallon, 2021). Denying her the human right to a fair trial, shows securitization relies on an “us” vs. “them” exclusionary dynamic for its legitimacy.

The investigation contains “blatant factual errors”, leaving volunteers in a legal limbo; the Greek government signals that the risk of criminalisation of humanitarians is a possibility for all, even when no evidence of wrongdoing exists (ibid.). Nonetheless, trials are constantly delayed; the objective behind criminalization is not necessarily to find people guilty, but to cast a shadow of doubt over the legitimacy of SAR and adjourn activities (Smith, 2021). This suggests SAR’s existence relies to some extent on political will, depicting the limits of European solidarity. Deterring assistance supports a non-entrée policy that violates the right to seek asylum, turning migrants into multidimensional victims who not only fail to receive assistance but face discrimination propagation.

The securitization of SAR humanitarians is complex and counterproductive, potentially generating the security threat that it seeks to demolish, as suggested by Gordon and Larsen (2020), who claim intimidating and policing migrant assistants may unexpectedly mobilize volunteer commitment and adversely impact political objectives. Miguel Duarte, a volunteer accused by the Italian government for aiding illegal immigration, returned to the Mediterranean after being exonerated (Campos, 2021). Volunteers remain encouraged sometimes to rebel against the state, public attention is gathered and so is support for migrants in distress. This commences de-securitization, framing SAR humanitarians and forced migrants as victims and resistants of inhumane border policies, whilst defending the right to asylum (IRL and IHR) and to be rescued at sea (IML) (Wæver, 1995).

SAR agents usually cooperate with authorities; Emergency Response Centre International – for which Sara and Seán worked – “wouldn’t do anything without the Helenic Coast Guard’s permission”, sometimes failing to show its independence from the state (Schachk and Witcher, 2021:488). This cooperation leads us to question why we still observe efforts to criminalize humanitarians. The answer lies in migration’s politicization: the Mediterranean delineates European external borders and must be governed through hostile policies to which civil society agents must never be exposed. However, the presence of SAR NGOs limits border authorities’ ability to act with impunity and presses for adherence to IML, IRL and IHR (Alarmphone, 2019). This suggests maritime refugee support agencies may be viewed as complicit with, victims, and, as Cuttita (2018) posits, transformative agents of antagonistic border policies, re-politicizing migration governance. Mare Liberum, a monitoring organization, claims volunteers have been harassed by Coast Guard and police officers; securitization embraces any agency attempting to expand limits of compassion, deterring any efforts to promote refugees’ human dignity (Schachk and Witcher, 2021).

Securitization measures escalate challenges further by discouraging volunteers from collaborating with authorities (Gordon and Larsen, 2020). However, SAR operations require Greece and Italy to allow disembarkation; humanitarians must collaborate with the state if legal obligations to assist individuals in peril at sea (IML) and fundamental rights to security and seek asylum are to be promoted. Whilst NGO neutrality is recommended, total independence from authorities may not be possible due to migration’s heavy politicization. Additionally, state-SAR cooperation tends to be informal; access to border crossers and ports can easily be terminated if NGOs publicly criticize authorities (Schack, 2021). Does this make SAR NGOs guilty by association? Or, can less humanitarian space – by not having full political independence – mean more? To protect the humanitarian space and reach full rescue capacity, SAR NGOs cannot compromise themselves – showing state dependency – and must safeguard against co-optation and responsibility offloading. Whilst this may reduce agency and blur the state/non-state distinction, potentially inviting watchdog civil society agencies, it may be effective if both define asylum-seekers as the referent object of securitization. Following humanitarian principles may force NGOs to choose between collaboration and criminalization.

Discourses that place the refugee as a threat impact land and sea refugee NGOs; none escape securitization effects. A video shows locals beating up forced migrants in the jungle surrounding Moria camp, where provisions are kept, with police standing still, permitting local violence (Alshewaili, 2020). The police-local interaction becomes a representation of state authority, communicating discourses of European power over the Oriental others, reinforcing power asymmetries that create hierarchies of humanity and additional vulnerability (Manning, 2012). Simultaneously, power is reconfigured, with hostile practices being encouraged by citizens, allowing authorities to retain power and validating exclusionary policies. Wæver (1995:54) declares “something is a security problem when the elites declare it so”. However, this example proposes that SC must modify its political elite-orientation to acknowledge securitization’s fluid power structures.

SC limits discourse to verbal or oral remarks. If SAR NGOs aim to resist securitization methods effectively and preserve the Mediterranean humanitarian space, Paris School’s sociological perspective on securitization should be considered, prioritizing daily practice over discourse and exceptional measures (Bigo, 2014). In the absence of verbal discourse, securitization efforts that equate forced migrants to threats are visible through Italy’s attempt to co-opt SAR NGOs by imposing a Code of Conduct that obliges them to take armed police officers on board (SeaWatch, 2017). Smirl (2015) would argue militarization to replicate colonial forms of power, with white people portrayed as powerful and distant to those distressed. This would potentially lead SAR workers to be perceived as not co-producers of human security but rather as oppressive structures, hindering the ability to give and receive assistance. However, state-NGO collaboration may be required for disembarkment, leaving aid agencies and their ambition to preserve humanitarian space in a limbo.

Hope for the humanitarian space

To defy the discourse defining SAR humanitarians as “pull factors” and irregular migrants as security threats, an online campaign called “Free Humanitarians” emerged which sent a letter to the European Commission in support for Sara and Seán (FreeHumanitarians, 2021). This resulted in 49 signatory NGOs and 71 Members of the European Parliament, amplifying discourses around the need to preserve the Mediterranean humanitarian space through de- securitization (ibid.). Can the online community thus be considered a humanitarian space when joint efforts are geared towards protecting humanitarians and the humanitarian space? In fact, do SAR operations need the online space’s protection? The “CNN effect” fails to account for social media, but depicts media’s ability to determine which crises get attended to, providing an opportunity for humanitarian space expansion (Robinson, 2002). Whilst it may not always shape political moves nor abide by neutrality, it mobilizes various players into a fight for human-centric approaches to migration, multidimensionally deconstructing discriminatory discourses/measures and fortifying the humanitarian space (Smillie and Minear, 2004). (De-)Securitization must not only be understood as (silent) discourses but as a tool to establish power relations, helping understand why this sometimes disregards neutrality and why populations (de-)securitize their land against aliens.

SAR workers’ ability to immediately respond to obstacles not only demonstrates high adaptability and recovery capacities but the intricate movement within the Mediterranean humanitarian space. The ability to resist securitization was observed when SeaWatch3 was denied disembarkation in an Italian port during its “Closed Ports” policy (Tondo, 2020). Narratives highlighting the right to rescue, safety, life and asylum and describing SAR operations as “sacrosanct”, as claimed by Francesco Italia, the mayor of Siracusa, provided hope to awaiting migrants whilst publicly challenging the central government, mobilizing support to delegitimize inhumane policies. Although unable to demonstrate direct correlation, 6 days later SeaWatch3 disembarked (ibid.). This proves not only the power of humanitarians’ unconditional loyalty towards forced migrants, but that this translates into resistance, suggesting pressures to de-securitize require compassionate-driven people. Mass movements may thus reconfigure international humanitarian order, make governments comply with IML IRL and IHR and mitigate anti-solidarity efforts.


By approaching securitization through the SC and suggesting potential reconfigurations to better understand securitization’s impact on the Mediterranean humanitarian space, this essay proves efforts exist to reduce SAR’s capacity to assist displaced persons according to humanitarian principles – which prove not to guarantee space – and create doubt over their legitimacy. This creates a paradox where volunteers face rising responsibilities in an increasingly risky humanitarian space, turning recipients into double victims. Nevertheless, restrictive policies confront SAR workers’ adaptability and resilience, resulting frequently in new modus operandi and humanitarian identities that retain access to humanitarian space and extend society’s compassion/hospitality boundaries.

The Mediterranean space will reach its full humanitarian potential when securitization places the human at its centre, respecting IML, IRL and IHR. The migration-security and border-safety nexus must be challenged through the addition of a humanitarian layer that erases the gap between national and human security. Refugee aid agencies may drive this by responding multidimensionally to solidarity punishments, constructing an “us” with “them” dynamic and reconceptualizing the humanitarian space. With rising populism and authoritarianism, defending civil society’s freedom – essential to liberal democracies -, is key to protect IML, IRL and IHR.

Further research is required to understand whether findings apply to other equally-politicized humanitarian areas, key for a full comprehension of intricate movements within the global humanitarian space. Studies must also focus on the necessary conditions to decouple security attitudes and attention must be drawn to the notion of the “humanitarian space”. Merging disconnected occurrences under this heading may produce false prospects. By focusing on context-specific elements of the Mediterranean space, this essay addresses challenges one- by-one.



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