BONUS: ‘The only way out of Libya is by sea’ — How migrant rescuers are making history in the Mediterranean

While governments fail to meet basic humanitarian requirements, rescue organizations like Sea-Watch are taking life-saving action on the frontlines of the European migrant crisis.

[Listen to this bonus “City of Refuge” episode or read a Q&A version below that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and other platforms.

When I set out to produce “City of Refuge” — a podcast series about a little-known French community that saved 5,000 refugees during World War II — I did it with the aim of showing how ordinary people can effectively resist the evil we see in our world. But lest anyone think this sort of thing only happened in isolated cases throughout history, I want to highlight the kind of rescue work taking place today, on the frontlines of the European migrant crisis.

Nobody knows exactly how many people die crossing the Mediterranean each year to flee violence, poverty and climate change. All we have are estimates. In 2019, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration put the figure at 1,885, which is the lowest number since the start of the crises in 2014. But that doesn’t mean crossing the Mediterranean is any less deadly. If anything it means fewer people are attempting the perilous journey, because while the annual death toll has declined the fatality rate has increased.

These trends are the direct result of Europe having largely withdrawn from its legally-required search and rescue duties. In an effort to stem the flow of refugees and migrants, the European Union transferred that responsibility to Libya in exchange for money and resources. As a result, the Mediterranean has become a sort of border wall policed by a rogue and non-professional coast guard whose country is enmeshed in human trafficking and civil war.

Given this reality in which governments have shirked their responsibility to provide safe passage — let alone address the root causes of migration — the task of helping those in need falls on civil society. One group providing such help is Sea-Watch, a German non-governmental organization that was founded in 2014 to monitor the situation in the Mediterranean and raise awareness. As the need for rescue became more apparent, Sea-Watch morphed into a full-on search-and-rescue operation with a network of over 500 volunteers, including trained professionals who operate a light aircraft and a 50-meter ship. Astoundingly, they have rescued over 37,000 people at sea in just five years.

German ship captain Carola Rackete aboard Sea-Watch 3 in Malta. (Sea-Watch/Paul Lovis Wagner)

Last summer, Sea-Watch made international headlines when one of its captains was temporarily arrested after defying orders not to dock in Lampedusa — an Italian island south of Sicily. The captain, a German woman named Carola Rackete, was carrying 40 migrants rescued at sea. And her decision to defy orders came after a 17-day stand off with the Italian government, during which Sea-Watch was forced to stick to international waters. Ultimately, with lives at stake, she brought the ship into port, where she was taken into custody and the ship was confiscated. Although quickly freed, Rackete could still face criminal charges.

Meanwhile, Sea-Watch didn’t get its ship back until December — a full six months later. That means search-and-rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean have only just resumed. To learn more about this sadly vital humanitarian work, I reached out to Sea-Watch spokesperson Haidi Sadik. Born to Egyptian parents in the Netherlands, Haidi has been with the organization since 2017 and was on board for last summer’s stand-off with the Italian government. During our conversation, she explained what a search-and-rescue operation looks like, the risks involved in such work and the general outlook for Sea-Watch going forward.

Who are you meeting out at sea? What kind of journey have people generally undertaken before they attempt to cross over to Europe?

Sea-Watch spokesperson and cultural mediator Haidi Sadik. (Twitter/Sea-Watch)

The majority of people displaced in the world today, a record number of almost 17 million, are displaced within their own region. So imagine you are someone fleeing Cameroon. There is a civil war going on there. You flee first in your immediate vicinity. So people end up in Nigeria. Then, in Nigeria, there are certain security risks, like Boko Haram, which forces you to move into Niger. So then you end up in Niger, and there is an organized system of trafficking people that you cannot control — this sort-of conveyor belt of people being smuggled into Libya. This is where people often lose control over their journey.

What we hear is that people then get tortured, exploited and have to call their families back home. I’ve heard this from young children traveling alone — teenagers who have walked through the desert on foot and were then taken, tortured, beaten and told to call their family to send more money. So, by the time they arrive in Libya, they have gone through such incredible abuse that the only way out of Libya is north. The only way out of Libya is the sea.

I’ve met some Egyptians who were just working in Libya for better opportunities, who wanted to go back to Egypt but couldn’t. You can’t just cross the desert and go back, which is why people find themselves having to make that journey, or being forced onto a rubber boat. [Smugglers tell them] “If you want to leave this country, this is how you do it: You pay me money, I’ll put you on a boat and maybe you’ll be found alive and maybe not.” So the stories are, without exception, full of abuse, torture, exploitation, trafficking, imprisonment and sexual violence. This is the order of the day for people coming out of Libya.

And when they do make it to Europe, are there cases of people then being deported? Is that a common occurrence?

I do think people will face that threat. I don’t know the exact proportions, but what I do know is that the asylum process is, or can be, very long. I don’t normally stay in touch, but there are a handful of people who I am still in touch with and are still waiting for their asylum process. You can see this when you look at the camps in Greece. There are people who have been stuck there, living in horrid conditions. People still die every winter from the cold. There was a fire recently where people died. There is some serious neglect going on, and these people are supposed to be there just in transit. But they’re still there, years and years after they’ve fled their original circumstances. So the process is very prolonged. It’s not dignified. It’s not humane, and even if you’re not under immediate threat of deportation you’re not living a full life for sure.

People rescued at sea waiting out a European sea blockade in January 2019. (Sea-Watch/Felix Weiss)

I hope you have at least encountered some people who are able to ultimately get out of the refugee camps, get settled and actually start new lives.

I have. But would you call it a success? Would you call it a happy ending? I would like to call it the bare minimum of what people deserve. And then there’s the obvious further struggles of people who face racism, rejection or just the struggle of having to readjust their life in a new place. But yes, those stories do happen. People do ultimately sometimes find safety and peace.

How does a search and rescue operation unfold — just to give us a sense of what that work is like and what it entails?

I’ll answer that in what it should look like and in what it does look like. So what it should look like is that the competent authorities, which are coast guards and rescue coordination centers, do exactly what it says on the [side of their boats]: To search and to rescue. That is a job that belongs to governments, and what it entails in practice is to spot boats in distress.

What they should do immediately is alert the nearest responsible rescue coordination center, which in this case should be the one in Rome or Malta. They should call them up and say “I am so and so vessel or aircraft, and I have spotted people who are in immediate distress, who require assistance.” An aircraft cannot usually render assistance. So what then happens is that the rescue coordination center notifies the nearest vessel and asks “Can you please go and render assistance?” Every captain — when they know of a boat in distress or people in distress — is required by law to render assistance, and if they don’t they are liable to prosecution.

What has happened now is that this has been completely flipped on its head, and there is a culture being created where not rendering assistance is perfectly fine because that’s what Europe wants. So what happens is that we had to find our own way to know where boats in distress are. Sometimes you’ll be sailing, and you’ll see them yourself. So really looking through binoculars and seeing a rubber boat with a hundred people on it, and then you go and render assistance.

We also have our own Moonbird plane that flies and spots boats in distress, and then alerts nearby vessels and coordination centers. Then there’s another mechanism — something called the Alarm Phone, which is also a civil organization. People who are in distress at sea will call that phone number, oftentimes to no avail because they don’t know where they are. But if they do know, a search will be initiated and people will be looking for that boat in distress. That’s all before contact is made, before a rescue even happens.

The Mediterranean is huge and when there is a boat in distress it is very hard to find. If it does happen under the right circumstances — by whoever it is, whether it’s us, an NG, or a commercial vessel — you deploy whatever resources you have. We have fast rescue boats that go out, hand out life jackets, take people safely, embark them onto our mother ship and then provide them with basic care. We have medical assistance, basic provisions, new clothes, showers, blankets — whatever it is they may need. And then a rescue is not over until people are on land.

So the next step is to alert the relevant authorities and say “We have rescued x-number of people. Please provide us with a port of safety.” This is where Europe is now completely washing its hands of responsibility and saying “Oh yeah, ask the Libyan coordination center, the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, to coordinate your rescue for you.” That is hugely dangerous. If you look at videos online of how this so-called coast guard conducts itself, it is criminal. We have evidence of people dying because of their behavior at sea. So, obviously, when we are asked to take people back to Libya, as a “safe port,” we would never do that. It then becomes this political battle to get people to Europe instead of Libya.

People rescued at sea holding up banners that say “Open Ports” and “Open Hearts.” (Facebook/Sea-Watch)

How dangerous is this work for your volunteers and your staffers? Are the risks largely legal or are there other risks involved? You’re at sea, I imagine there are lots of dangerous things that could happen.

Yes, working on a ship always is dangerous, and that is why you need to be well-trained and prepared for doing this work. But I would say that, largely, when I go on the ship I do not worry. The risk for me would be the legal one, but it’s never happened so far that someone was actually convicted because we know that what we do is legal. It’s obviously a hugely disruptive and terrible thing if your life gets put on hold because you’re facing a legal battle. That has its own challenges, and I really don’t want to belittle that. But, principally, it won’t stick.

It’s interesting to hear all that. I think some part of me was considering this work as maybe a form of civil disobedience.

It’s interesting because around the time that Captain Carola was arrested, there was a lot of this civil disobedience terminology being used. I know there’s a time and place for civil disobedience. It’s a very effective and perfectly legitimate tool, but I refuse to use that term for what we do because we uphold the law in every single way. It isn’t disobedience. I think it’s important to get that nuance right, even for ourselves. What we do is perfectly legal, and it will go down in history as the right thing to have done. And yes, maybe in the future there will be a time for civil disobedience. But this isn’t it.

I think it’s completely in line with what I’ve learned about rescuers throughout history and how they view things. During World War II they weren’t thinking about legalities. To them, helping people wasn’t illegal. It’s simply what humans do.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this recently, which is to say: the spectrum between the human interaction of providing assistance and the radical political action of resisting fascism and racism. Both really apply here. But sometimes it is just as simple as: Somebody is likely to drown, and we have a ship that is well equipped and people who are trained to make sure they don’t drown. At a very basic human level that is what our volunteers at sea are doing: making sure people aren’t drowning.

At the same time, however, we are very deeply linked to activist movements all over Europe, and we are very vocally resisting the anti-immigrant policies that are being enforced at Europe’s external borders and on the mainland. So, we do a little bit of both. It’s the resistance and the political stance that we’re taking, but also the deeply human encounter at sea.

Sea-Watch and other rescue organizations have to deal with myths and outright lies about what your work is, or what it is contributing toward. Some have labeled you as human traffickers or aiding that horrible practice in some way or other. How do you deal with that?

I think we deal with it and move on because it is so clear: How can there be a relationship between us and smugglers, when oftentimes we don’t find boats in distress? If there was such a relationship, then surely we would be right there waiting, you know? We would know where a boat in distress is and just make a handover from a smuggler to us, if that was our intention. We would literally be a ferry. But what happens is we’re looking for a needle in a haystack. We’re looking for people who others do not want us to find.

On a deeper level, there’s also the argument of whether [our form of] humanitarian assistance should be a secret. In any other place in the world where people are crossing borders the presence of a refugee camp is known, and it’s okay for that space to be protected. So why is that any different at sea? Why should our presence be a surprise?

The argument is so persistent because I think it’s convenient, and it fits with those who take a hard line on migration. It’s just easy to have a scapegoat and say “Ah well, you’re just traffickers.” It’s a weak argument, and our presence doesn’t influence the number of attempts of people crossing. That myth was busted many years ago.

What we do is we’re making history. We’re putting on the public record what is happening in the Mediterranean, and it is only natural for those who are in power, with a vested interest to keep things the way they are, to fight us on this.

Do you expect the situation to get worse or stay the same? What is your short-term outlook for this year and what work do you foresee Sea-Watch doing?

In the short or immediate term of this year, I see us doing exactly what we have been — and hopefully with two rescue ships rather than one. Right now the climate is not as bad as it was last year with the weeks of political standoff, but at the same time something’s got to give. These ad hoc solutions for distributing people are not successful, they’re not working. We need a robust new mechanism for distributing people fairly in Europe. We need a fairer and more humane asylum policy across the continent. I don’t see that changing in the next year, and I’ve kind of taken a very cynical approach over the last couple of years on this. It’s very clear that the situation is getting worse.

A few years ago we were still working with the Italian Coast Guard under their coordination, and now that’s completely gone away. We are forced to interact with an illegitimate and incompetent entity that actually causes people to die. As long as big institutions like the United Nations recognize that authority and legitimize it, then what’s actually going to improve? This needs to change. The way we talk about this needs to be completely flipped on its head, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

It’s so important that you provide this example that ordinary people can effect change because that’s probably what it’s going to take. It’s not going to happen in the halls of political power without the involvement and pressure of the general public.

Thank you so much for saying that. I know that was very cynical, but to end on a positive note: What actually keeps our work alive and possible is the generosity and solidarity of the general public — of regular citizens who are resisting this populism, this racism and this fascism. What we see now [all across Europe] is this huge movement of people opening their homes, churches, places of worship or whatever it is to people who have newly arrived. They are basically defying this policy and structure coming from the top down. There are mayors who say to their minister of interior “Actually you may say that the ports are closed, but I will welcome the people who are now crossing the Mediterranean.”

And there’s a movement called Seebrücke, which is German for “sea bridge.” [As a result of their work] hundreds of cities across Europe have declared themselves safe havens or solidarity cities that will facilitate sending a bus or whatever transport to bring people to their cities. They’re even challenging this legally — constitutionally — where their decision as a mayor can override the decision of the central government or the ministry of interior. And that is hugely inspiring and motivating, and it shows that civil society can carry this where governments are failing.

Related Episodes