An interview with Sophie Beau, vice-President of SOS MEDITERRANEE.
Could you briefly explain your mission and operations?
SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European civil society association, founded in 2015. It was founded at the end of operation Mare Nostrum in Italy when the Italian navy put an end to their one year operation (November 2013-2014) and saved about 150,000 lives at sea in the Central Mediterranean. This operation was terminated under pressure from the European Union, leaving the Mediterranean without any rescue capacity. This is the time when we met, Klaus Vogel and myself. Klaus is a merchant marine captain from Germany and I am from the humanitarian field. We decided to create a European civil rescue association to save lives at sea. That’s the first objective, of course. The second objective is to protect and assist the people we rescue, and the third is to testify in our respective countries. The idea was to have the presence of civil society in these very dramatic circumstances and this very particular area of the Central Mediterranean; to bear witness as civilians to what is going on.
Through a lot of refusals from public donors at the national, European and international level, we learned that public funds were not available for this humanitarian issue and that we had to rely on civil society – who were more responsive to our call for action. We chartered a ship – the Aquarius – and began operations on 26 February 2016 first in partnership with Doctors of the World and later Medecins Sans Frontieres. We have been able to rescue 27,454 people since we began and in total we performed more than 210 rescues and transfers from other ships as well.
On board we have 3 different crews working together as one team. Firstly, the crew of the Aquarius which is composed of 11 seamen who are completely dedicated to the navigation of the Aquarius. The Aquarius is a big ship, it’s 77m long, and so you need this amount of people to run it 24 hours a day. The second crew is SOS MEDITERRANEE’s crew which is composed of 11 seamen, they are the search and rescue team, plus two communications officers including a photographer. More than 115 volunteers have been involved in the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescue teams since we started. Then there is the team from MSF who are dedicated to the medical care on board and also to identify vulnerable cases to notify the Italian authorities so there is a proper follow up on disembarkation in Europe. We are all working together and the ship is operating on three week operations, after which it disembarks in Sicily in our home port of Catania.
The Aquarius has now been operating for 2 years. What are the major changes you have seen over this time?
First of all, the movement of people crossing is not constant. There are hectic periods and things can get quite intense. It depends on the political situation in Libya and on the pressure from Libyan authorities on the smugglers network to release the boats with migrants and we understand from the testimonies of people rescued, that sometimes they cannot leave for weeks because there are clashes between militias.
There has been a general decrease in the number of people crossing since last summer, especially during the months of August, September and October last year. There were still hundreds of people rescued every month, but less than previous months for sure. It’s absolutely obvious that it’s linked to the political situation and deals made between the European countries, in particular Italy, and Libya. But then we also noticed in the winter there was a sudden increase again, so we cannot make a general conclusion. When I hear in the media that the route of the Central Mediterranean is almost closed I just can’t agree, because we still face a lot of departures. It remains the deadliest migratory road in the world, and the first in the Mediterranean for the number of crossings.
It’s a difficult context for NGOs to operate in. The first campaign to criminalize NGOs started at the beginning of 2017 and from extreme right-wing groups it spread to mainstream media in Italy. There was a clear conjunction of the media and politics against search and rescue NGOs in Italy that was linked closely with internal political debates and the fact that Italy has been left alone for years with the responsibility of people crossing, without support from other European countries. We clearly observed a shift in the way the Italian society views these rescue operations. It has been quite difficult for the NGOs in general to cope with this because there was a lot of fake news, disinformation and accusations without any evidence that we were colluding with smugglers. This was aimed at weakening NGOs and some of us had to stop operating. In particular one German NGO (Jugend Rettet) had to stop their operations because their ship (Iuventa) was seized by the Italian authorities. There has still not been any evidence, but they are still not able to operate.
During the summer, there was also a clear change from the Libyans who declared unilaterally a “Search and Rescue region” in the international waters next to Libya – which is not recognised by the International Maritime Organisation. They announced an expansion of operations into international waters and the demand for NGOs to leave this area, in violation of maritime law. So it has indeed been quite complicated for some of the NGOs – MSF had launched a SAR operation on the ship Prudence, which they stopped at that time. A couple of months later Save the Children also stopped their operations. In the end we are very few left in the area. At the moment there are only two NGOs in the area – SOS Mediterranee, Proactiva while two German NGOs (Sea Watch, Sea Eye) announced they will resume operations.
During the summer of last year, Italy released a mandatory Code of Conduct for NGO’s. Did SOS Mediteranee sign it? Did it affect your operations?
We actually did not agree with the first version. We proposed some amendments which we discussed with the Ministry of Interior, after some NGOs already signed the text. We were able to discuss some points that weren’t acceptable to us, which were modified and we agreed to sign the modified version with amendments. So all the more controversial points we were able to discuss and in the end we signed the revised version. It didn’t affect our operations and we didn’t expect that it would because we are working under Maritime Law and conventions which are extremely clear regarding rescues at sea. We have always worked with the Italian MRCC and we just continued to do this. We feel that the Code of Conduct was more of an issue relating to the internal political debate in Italy but it didn’t change anything in our modus operandi.
Italy has now passed over much of its former search and rescue work to the Libyan coastguard. What are your experiences with the work of the Libyan coast guard?
It’s quite heterogeneous and so I would like to make some distinctions. At the beginning of 2017 we had some incidents with the “so called” Libyan coast guard- unidentified Libyan ships that were pretending to be Libyan coast guard. We were wondering if they were militias or people with army uniforms not totally under the command of the Libyan coast guard etc. There were frequent interferences from these unidentified Libyan boats pretending to be coast guard and that was quite difficult at the time because there were some critical incidents.
On the 23rd of May 2017 during one of the biggest mass rescues we ever did, we had more than 1000 people on board the Aquarius at the end of the day. We first went to one rubber boat in distress and we had the opportunity to give the people some life jackets first before having to leave them for a little while to save another rubber boat in distress nearby. During this time, one of these unidentified Libyan boats approached carrying armed people in uniform. They went onto the rubber boat with the migrants, started to take phones and money from the people on board and fired their guns in the air. People were completely terrified and started to jump in the water, fortunately we had the time to distribute the life jackets. We then came back and picked up 70 people from the water- in one day where we had this critical situation with simultaneous departures and many operations at the same time. It was a critical situation and very dangerous. We think no-one drowned in this incident but it could really become deadly quite easily.
We had other incidents less violent than this one with these unidentified Libyan coast guard during the beginning of 2017. But it seems that the Libyan coast guard are more trained and there is better control, which doesn’t necessarily make things easier for us. But at least they are conducting operations apparently under an authority in Libya, from what we can understand. Still it is quite complicated for us as they are assuming coordination on some operations and they deny any assistance from the Aquarius. We can see that they are not very professional or well-equipped and we doubt that they are the best people to perform the operation with this lack of capacity. They interfere with SAR operations and intercept the boats and bring people back to Libya, which is exactly the hell they have just fled. They are then returned by force in the circle of detention camps where they are submitted to torture, rape, violence, daily humiliations, lack of food and hygiene, extortion of funds from their families, forced labour and even slavery. Many people rescued by our teams say they prefer to die at sea than to be returned to Libya.
Currently you work alongside the MRCC (Maritime Rescue Control Centre) in Rome, but Italy is planning on helping set up an MRCC in Tripoli. What is your perspective on this initiative?
There is no official recognition of the MRCC in Libya by the International Maritime Organisation so it doesn’t exist so far. But we can make two observations: first of all, the capacity of the Libyan coast guard is not adequate to rescue people safely according to the international regulations; secondly, bringing back people to Libya is not only putting them in danger, it is also in contradiction with international law, since the people cannot ask for protection and claim for asylum in Libya which has not ratified the Geneva conventions. Currently, we continue to operate under the MRCC in Rome which is transmitting to the Aquarius the distress messages and the request to proceed with SAR activities.
What is your perspective on the future regarding your operations in the Med and your funding?
We strongly believe there is a need for an independent, non-political presence of the civilian society at sea to perform these rescue operations in a highly politicised context. We are not a political organisation, we are a maritime and humanitarian organisation operating in line with the law and our ethics which is humanity, based on a very simple line: you need to give a hand to anyone who is drowning. It is a legal and moral duty to do so. Our mission in the current context is very difficult but it remains essential in my opinion. We are not only rescuing people but we are also testifying to the situation which is a very important part of our mandate.
It is only due to a huge civil society mobilisation that has enabled us to operate until today. All in all we have more than 95% private donations enabling us to perform the operations. It’s very expensive to operate the Aquarius, €11,000 per day, and all that money we collect through private donations from European citizens – all these people do not accept to see thousands of people drowning at the doorstep of Europe, without doing anything. SOS MEDITERRANEE continues to raise awareness in different countries and therefore we have established a network in Europe – Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland. We hope that this mobilisation of citizens shows political leaders that many people do not agree with this situation and the migration policy of Europe. In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis is still going on in the Central Mediterranean with thousands of lives still being lost, which could be avoided. We will continue calling on the European authorities to set up an adequate rescue capacity to avoid this humanitarian disaster, and we will continue our rescue work, as long as there is a need for it.
Photo: (cc) Maud Veith/SOS MEDITERRANEE