The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that in 2018 an average of six refugees per day drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean; moreover, every 15th refugee died on the Central Mediterranean route in their effort to enter Europe from Libya; in total, 2,275 persons died in 2018. These numbers count the dead produced by one of the world’s deadliest border spaces: the Mediterranean (de Genova 2017; Cuttitta/Last 2020). However, counting dead bodies does not necessarily imply that those people count (Butler 2016: xx; Gebhardt 2020: 129). European migration governance aligns with this critique: policies targeting the minimization of refugee deaths in the Mediterranean were canceled gradually by authorities from the European Union (EU) over the last decade. Consequently, we see more non-state actors involved in search and rescue (SAR) missions in the Mediterranean, especially since 2014.
Considering the inaction of European border agencies, non-governmental search and rescue organizations (SAR NGOs) lined up in the last couple of years to save the lives of refugees in distress at the Mediterranean Sea. This “civil fleet” (Stierl 2018) works as a humanitarian intervention, supposedly in opposition to state authorities. However, constantly facing complex, life-threatening emergencies, the practice of sea rescue demands situational collaboration with authorities, institutions, and organizations scrutinized for their repressive politics. Consequently, sea rescuers find themselves compelled to cooperate in manifold ways with border agencies whose policies and practices they politically and ethically reject (Cusumano 2018).
We start from the assumption that the Mediterranean border regime is characterized by entanglements of various actors, such as national and supranational border authorities on the European and African continent, policed spaces, symbolic orders, and material cultures as well as people on the move, smugglers, self-organized support systems, including SAR NGOS, merchant vessels and technological infrastructures – to name a few. In such a texture, or “constellation of singularities and traits” (Deleuze/Guattari 1987: 406), the relationships between the actors, materials, and technologies are characterized by constantly changing situational elements. Our approach challenges an implicit assumption of literature around SAR NGOs and EU border agencies in the Mediterranean border regime, following a dichotomous understanding of their respective practices. We argue that the current Mediterranean border regime is characterized not only by an opposition between activists on one side and repressive institutions on the other. To unearth the inner workings of (situational) cooperation and (normative) contestation, we focus on analyzing the changing relations between SAR NGOs and European border agencies in a Mediterranean through the lens of "border assemblage". By giving insights into concrete situations and constraining elements, we scrutinize the idea that SAR NGOs only contest government actions and norms. Their strategies both focus on a critique of the European “border death regime” (Cuttitta et al. 2020) and on cooperation with precisely those institutions and agencies that represent the (lethal) operational dimension of the European border (and migration) regime.