Just north of Libya’s territorial waters, a rescue boat operated by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières/MSF) awaits the call. A small wooden fishing boat, sometimes a rubber dinghy, overloaded with refugees to five or six times its capacity, is in distress — in danger of capsizing in the rough Mediterranean waters. Equipped with a search-and-rescue crew and medical team, MSF responds, locating the distressed boat, evacuating the men, women, and children and treating them for ailments from dehydration to torture wounds they’ve sustained in arbitrary detention in Libya. MSF then transports the refugees to a safe port in southern Italy.
In the years of the NGO’s presence in the Mediterranean — from 2015‒2018 — MSF executed 425 of these rescue operations and assisted 77,000 people. As its director of advocacy and communications, Hernan del Valle RI ’19 witnessed the crisis up close, helping oversee MSF’s search-and-rescue operations for people fleeing conflict and famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East — and watching as Europe slowly but decisively turned its back.
From his third-floor corner office in Byerly Hall, on Radcliffe’s campus, del Valle — who is the 2018–2019 Rita E. Hauser Fellow — is stepping back and trying to make sense of what transpired during those tumultuous years when MSF stepped in to fill the void that Europe left when its policy toward refugees crossing the Mediterranean shifted from rescue to obstruction. Del Valle wants to better understand where things went wrong: how it all started, what was happening in the background politically, and how it is coming to an end.
“There was a massive transformation in Europe over a very short period of time,” he said. “When we started rescuing refugees at sea there was an outpouring of solidarity, but three years later we are excoriated and under attack. I want to write the story of the transformation of Europe. Today solidarity with fellow human beings is being criminalized.”
Although he is examining that transformation through the lens of his experience in the Mediterranean, del Valle believes that the issues in the U.S. and other countries receiving immigrants parallel those in Europe. “We need to understand migration differently,” he said. “Refugees and migrants are being framed as a threat to the political order — as a problem that needs to be solved. Rather, the relevant question is whether we can manage migration humanely. What kind of society are we, and what do we want to become?”
Search and rescue
For decades, rigid border controls for migrants entering Europe from Africa and the Middle East have made sea crossing the only means of entry for those refugees. Since 2000, 35,000 have died trying to reach Europe by sea. And as hardship and conflict have intensified throughout those regions in recent years, the number of sea crossings has grown. In 2013 alone, Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum rescued more than 100,000 migrants. But soon, Italy, along with other European nations, was reversing its response to the refugees’ plight. In April 2015, MSF launched its first rescue boat. As del Valle explained at his Radcliffe Institute fellow’s presentation in October, although naval rescues are not part of MSF’s typical responsibilities, “We knew it was the right thing to do.” In June, MSF launched two additional boats. Groups of citizens from Europe also responded, and in just one year, more than 10 NGO-run rescue boats were operating in the Mediterranean.
MSF did not anticipate what came next, del Valle said. The refugee crisis became a central issue for several European countries, a weapon for fighting elections. Emboldened right-wing groups emerged from the shadows, spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric. In a final blow, European politicians negotiated with Turkey and then Libya to send Europe’s refugees back to them, with the understanding that both countries would control their borders and prevent further debarkation of boats. “That moment is when we knew that we were losing, that we had no traction, and there was no hope,” del Valle said.