Lifeboat [subtitled in part]

Lifeboat

Lifeboat is another of the five Academy Award nominated documentary short films that I saw as a bloc. This one is just over a half hour long.

The documentary is about migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from the northern coast of Africa to Europe. It’s a very dangerous crossing, especially since they typically aren’t able to obtain very seaworthy vessels and must cram way too many people onto makeshift rafts. A large number of them (several hundred per year) drown without ever reaching their destination. Not to mention that they may have had to pay coyotes (or whatever the analogous term is for African human smugglers) an exorbitant amount for the privilege of so risking their lives, and that there is hardly a guarantee of a warm welcome and an opportunity at a decent life if they make it to Europe.

Which should all give you a pretty good idea of how bad what they’re fleeing is.

Among other things, the film shows rafts of unsuccessful migrants that have washed back onto the shore in Africa, but the bulk of the footage is of volunteers of the non-profit group Sea-Watch. Sea-Watch’s mission is to cruise around in the Mediterranean, staying just outside the territorial limits claimed by Libya and other northern African countries, watching for migrants in distress on the high seas. Included are extended scenes where they do indeed rescue a large number of such migrants.

It’s an important topic, but for whatever reason I had a lot of trouble sticking with this film. As gripping as the material is—or in the abstract seems like it should be—I found my mind often wandering.

The migration problem, as terrible as it is now, is almost certain to become considerably worse as climate change further destabilizes Third World areas, and Europe and the United States potentially drift further in a right wing populist, anti-immigrant direction.

I applaud Sea-Watch for its efforts of course, but I’m unclear on some of the specifics of what the organization does.

For example, where do they take the people they rescue? I assume they don’t dump them back where they started, but assuming they facilitate their crossing by taking them to Europe, what happens then? Do they take them to the closest country to where they were attempting to cross, or is there a specific country or countries where they take them all regardless of where they pick them up? When migrants do cross the sea successfully in their rafts, are they sneaking into countries illegally, or once they manage to reach shore are they entitled to some kind of refugee status? Is it any different if instead of making it across themselves, a Sea-Watch vessel brings them?

The film also got me wondering about unintended consequences. Presumably we don’t want people attempting to cross the sea in a way that has such a high risk of getting them killed. (The film shows the Sea-Watch folks destroying the rafts once they rescue the people so that they cannot be reused, presumably to discourage such attempts.) But does the existence of Sea-Watch itself make the crossing slightly less dangerous, and does that enter into the calculations of people deciding whether to make the effort, thereby encouraging more people to risk it?

Clearly the Sea-Watch folks are well-motivated, but equally clearly this is a problem that could only be solved by massive changes in political, military, foreign policy, economic, and climate policies, at the very least. In other words, it’s one of those intimidatingly massive problems that feels like it would take a sudden change in human nature to properly deal with.

Which maybe is why I couldn’t get into this film as much as I would have expected. Maybe I shied away from doing so because the problem just seems so insoluble and depressing.

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