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In the new climate of fear, our rescue boat turned away from people drowning

Last week, our rescue crew was afraid and 120 people probably died as a result. 

A little after 9.30pm on Monday 18 June, during my watch on the Seefuchs’ bridge, our ship’s command station, I overheard a message on the emergency radio channel. A passing plane had spotted a refugee rubber boat in distress 21 miles off the coast of Libya – just within Libyan territorial waters. On board were 120 people. The plane asked a nearby cargo ship to come to the boat’s aid. The cargo ship reluctantly agreed.

These days, refugee rescue work is filled with uncertainty. The week before, an NGO ship called the Aquarius rescued more than 600 people, but the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blocked the Aquarius from entering Italian ports. There was a standoff. This overloaded ship was stranded in international waters for a week until Spain let her in. In the last year, two NGO ships have been impounded, one of them, the Iuventa, for good. Our 13-person crew was apprehensive about the week ahead.

On the night of the radio conversation, we were 11 miles from the boat in distress. But the passing plane called the cargo ship rather than us – probably because our tracking system, called the AIS, was malfunctioning. On the radar, there was only one ship closer to the boat in distress, and it was going the wrong way. An hour later, we were the closest vessel. We soon realised the cargo ship wasn’t going to help. Our captain was reluctant to get involved, given Italy’s increasingly aggressive stance towards NGOs. And so we didn’t inform the cargo ship or the plane of our position. Half an hour later, the plane returned to its home base.

We called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), the governmental body which oversees and authorises rescue operations. Normally we need their permission before we can do anything. But this time they gave us no guidance, other than to tell us to call the Libyan coastguard. In the past, the Libyan coastguard has threatened NGO boats like ours. Perhaps because of this, the captain decided not to contact them. At the same time, our NGO’s board in Germany told us to go north, away from Libyan territorial waters (which end 24 miles from shore), since the MRCC had given us no express orders to get involved. We headed north and then west, towards Tunisia. The VHF radio was silent for the rest of the night.

How is it that a rescue boat was fleeing from, instead of going towards, a boat in need? I think we feared we would become like the Aquariusstranded at sea, or the Iuventa, impounded. If we rescued these people, what harbour would let us in? Would we be accused of people smuggling? Would our NGO be banned? The campaign to criminalise NGOs has worked. We were a rescue boat afraid of rescue work. We were intimidated. And so we motored away, as 120 people likely drowned.

We crew members didn’t talk much about that boat. The next day, some even wondered whether the rubber boat had been there at all. On returning to land, I’ve seen no news article mention these 120 people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that last week 220 people drowned off Libya, the deadliest week of 2018. The 120 people from Monday night seem not to be included in that figure.

A lot should have been different. The cargo ship should have saved the refugees. The captain should have disobeyed the NGO’s board and not gone north. Maybe we crew should have disobeyed the captain. If the sea had been calmer, if the moon had been bigger, if our tracking system had been working, if more NGO ships had been present, if the Italians had not taken every step they could take to threaten the NGOs, if the Libyans had taken responsibility, if we had been less afraid – if any one of these conditions had changed, some or all of those 120 people might have lived. But as it was, all combined, the conditions were lethal.

Imagine if that boat in distress had carried 120 Brits. The emergency channel would chatter with information. Every boat in a 100-mile radius would offer assistance. Planes would arrive from North Africa, Lampedusa, and Malta. Imagine how the Seefuchs would act. Would we have allowed a system of rules and regulations to stop us from doing what needed to be done? That night we acted like firemen stopping at a red light when a house is on a fire. What if it had been our house?

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we motored back-and-forth, keeping 30 miles from the Libyan coast. The weather was improving – by Wednesday evening the sea was turning into a pane of glass. Given this flat sea, we expected refugee boats to leave Thursday morning. But at 11pm Wednesday night the captain assembled the crew. The Seefuchs’ Dutch flag was being taken away. The Dutch claimed that our paperwork was insufficient – despite it sufficing for the last two years.

A ship’s flag is like a man’s passport. In an instant, we became stateless and uninsured. As the Italian Interior Minister Salvini put it, our rescue ship became a “pirate ship”. A week before schedule, we turned back to Malta. After lengthy negotiations, we entered the Malta port. Now the Seefuchs is stuck there. If we leave port, we won’t be allowed back.

As we were travelling to Malta, the Lifeline, the only other NGO ship in the area, rescued more than 200 people and also headed north. But the ports of Europe remain closed, as they were for the Aquarius. As of today, the Lifeline remains in international waters, without a harbour in which to dock, with the latest reports suggesting it may dock in Malta. In the meantime, there were no rescue ships left in the Libyan Sea. The Libyan coastguard has saved some hundreds of people in distress. But hundreds more have likely drowned.

The ports of Italy are closed. The Dutch flags of the Seefuchs and the Lifeline are being taken away. The Aquarius, despite no longer having refugees on board, was today denied entry to Malta’s harbour. A plane operated by the NGO Sea Watch has been barred from flying, blocked with new paperwork objections, which will take months to fill out. Another search plane is not being allowed to refuel in Lampedusa. There seems to be a coordinated, concerted effort among some EU states to stop NGO rescue work, through bureaucracy and insinuations of criminality.

It is one thing for European governments to act heartlessly, turning a blind eye to people drowning at sea. It’s another for them to create a false narrative to cover their tracks: claiming NGO ships are criminal organisations and people smugglers; claiming our flags are invalid, our vessels pirate ships.

We can each have our own opinions but Mr Salvini can’t have his own facts. The facts are: there are desperate people at sea, there are legitimately organised philanthropical groups trying to save them from drowning, and there are new leaders in Europe who don’t want any more African migrants. Let’s start with those facts and look for solutions rather than peddle a dishonest and Newspeak version of events to mask a deadly reality.

Europe’s conclusion may well be that this migration route must be blocked. But the way we stop it can’t be by letting people drown and delegitimising those trying to help them. Rescue work has two parts. The first is a human duty: save people from drowning. The second is political: transport these people to some country. Over the last four years, 600,000 people have arrived by boat to Italy. Politicians are understandably worried about this migration of people to their shores. But let us keep the two parts of rescue as separate as we can. The political concerns must not engulf our duty to rescue.

Last week Salvini called for the crew of the Lifeline and Seefuchs to be arrested. Last week our rescue crew was afraid and 120 people probably drowned. Salvini, should you arrest us, arrest us for that.

Peter Martin has worked as a volunteer on three search and rescue missions with NGOs, working most recently as the driver of a rescue craft launched from a larger ship. He is a PhD student in Classics at the University of Cambridge.