In June, Italy’s government impounded the Sea-Eye 4 rescue ship for 20 days as part of a crackdown on NGOs that save migrants’ lives at sea. Crew members told Jacobin why they won’t be intimidated by authorities who routinely leave migrants to drown.

Police and coast guard boats patrolling the rescue ship Sea-Eye 4 after it docked with 106 migrants on board in the port of Naples, Italy. (Salvatore Laporta / Kontrolab / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Since 2015, the European Union and its member states have increasingly failed to conduct sea-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea — even though it’s a binding duty in international law. Coming in reaction to the fascist backlash against large-scale refugee movements toward Europe, the change of approach is supposedly meant to calm growing racist sentiments toward migrants. Yet, it has failed in every regard. Neither has it restrained the rise of far-right forces, nor did it even meet its declared goal of reducing migration numbers. The sole outcome was the establishment of an ever more deadly border system, with a death toll of at least 27,727 people since 2014.

In recent years, a number of civil sea-rescue organizations have been created in a remarkable effort to fill in the gaps left by the EU’s dismissal of human rights. Thirty-eight ships have been deployed by the so-called civil fleet, allowing several thousand lives to be saved from the death grip of the Mediterranean. One of the organizations, operating since 2016, is Sea-Eye, originally based in the German city of Regensburg.

Ever since the start of their operations, these civil sea-rescue organizations, their captains, and their crews have faced various forms of repression and legal persecution. While some cases, such as the trial launched in Italy against the crew of the rescue ship Iuventa, have drawn media focus, most have received rather less attention. Nonetheless, repression against both refugees and the organizations and crews supporting them has been a constant in civil sea-rescue operations.

Recently, in Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist government came up with a new law targeting civil sea-rescue organizations — blocking them from conducting multiple rescue operations during one mission and granting the government the possibility to impound the ships should they disobey. In June, the Sea-Eye 4, the flagship of rescue organization Sea-Eye, was detained for twenty days in the harbor of Ortona because it defied the law. In an interview, Robin Jaspert spoke to Captain Paval, First Officer Vatroslav, and Second Officer Yanira, who were in charge during the mission that led to the detainment of the ship.

Robin Jaspert

Why did you choose to work for Sea-Eye?

Yanira

I am here because I was in another NGO [nongovernmental organization] first. As soon as I started working at this sea-rescue job, I found that I can do something else with my knowledge and my certificates.

Neither has the EU’s hardened line on migration restrained the rise of far-right forces, nor did it even meet its declared goal of reducing migration numbers.

Paval

I was on container ships for twenty-two years, and I was tired of it. I wanted something different in my life. I decided to go into sea rescue because a best friend of mine was in Sea-Eye’s sister-organization, and he suggested that I try and see how it works. I found it very interesting; it’s a good thing that we are doing. That is why I am here and want to stay.

Vatroslav

I picked the job unintentionally. I just sent an e-mail, they answered, then I met this guy [points to Paval]. We spoke, drank a coffee, and I chose to come. It was that simple. I like the sea. I like doing something good.

Robin Jaspert

All of you have worked in the traditional shipping industry — so what is different between that and working here?

Paval

There is a big difference. Until coming here, we were working only with professional crews. But here, we are half volunteer and half professional crew. So, things are more demanding. You have to find a good mixture, to work with both. Some people are on a ship for the first time. They have never been at sea at all. We have to take care of these people, too. They sometimes don’t understand the ship is going to roll and things are going to move [laughs]. In this case, it is a little bit more challenging. The most important thing, for us professional crew members, is to create a good balance. I think we are doing pretty well.

Yanira

For me, the difference is also the working environment. Here, I’ve found people that find more or less the same meaning in life as I do. Also, it is less competitive. We work together as a team and even as a family. In other vessels, this is different. You always have competition who can move up in the company and this is not happening here. I feel more motivated.

Paval

There is also another very big difference. What we are doing is real sea rescue. This is a ship that is not carrying any cargo, it is not making money. When you are on a conventional ship you have to follow the rules of the company and it’s all about money. Here nothing is about money, it is about saving people’s lives. This is the goal of this mission and what the vessel is doing: life-saving.

Robin Jaspert

Have your experiences on the Sea-Eye, conducting sea-rescue operations, changed you — and how?

Vatroslav

It cannot change me. I am what I am. Twenty years ago I thought the same way. Now, it is only a little bit different. It is a different thing when you see things on TV and in reality. It is [exhales] Mamma Mia! That is a big difference.

People decide to take such a small boat because they have no other option — this is just the only choice they have.

Yanira

For my part, I am changing a lot. Really deep inside. I was aware of the whole situation of migration before I came. I come from the Canary Islands, and we have migration routes there and, of course, I was aware about how people decide to take such a small boat because they have no other option — this is just the only choice they have. But I can feel now that I am more aware of these things, and I value what we do here. Since I’ve been working here, I am aware of how many privileges we have. I now appreciate the life I have even more. When I come back home and I hear people complaining about things that for me right now are not so relevant, sometimes it’s difficult.

Paval

I can tell that Sea-Eye is very well organized during the sea rescue. With a doctor’s team, with rescue coordinators, and everything. It is going very smoothly.

There have been migrant routes and movements for thousands of years. Also during my time on container vessels, when we were in the Mediterranean Sea, there were distress messages and some ships around. But I was on a conventional ship, a 400-meter container ship. We couldn’t do anything. But now, once you are engaged in this rescue, you can see a lot of things clearer and more closely. There are sometimes very difficult situations. For example, in our January mission we had, for the first time in Sea-Eye history, dead bodies on board.

We also have psychological debriefings and support from the shore. It is very well-organized and helps us a lot. But it also depends on us. How do we [make ourselves] think: “We did not lose two people, we saved seventeen.” In this particular case, if we came ten hours later, maybe people would already have started drinking seawater.

I think every schoolkid knows, but I’ll explain it anyway: you cannot drink seawater. It worsens your condition. I think these people were already at the end. If we came ten hours later, we would have found all of them dead. I think here it is very important to think positively. We are here to save people’s lives. We saved seventeen. Of course, it is very, very sad to see these situations and deal with them. But I think we are getting stronger and more experienced with every rescue. This will help us in the future, with the next missions.

Robin Jaspert

What goes through your mind when you receive an emergency call from a small vessel? What do you think?

Paval

To get there, to be on the scene as fast as possible. Or also to contact other vessels that are perhaps in the vicinity. Some of them are able to help these people for a while but not to take care of them. We are a professional rescue ship with a hospital and all the stuff needed.

Robin Jaspert

As professional seafarers, do you have any choice not to react to an emergency request? If you receive a request, could you choose not to support people?

Yanira

Of course not.

Paval

Well, according to SOLAS [International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea] regulations, it is a little bit tricky. The master of the vessel is not always obligated, and it depends on the situation. It depends where the distress and the emergency is and whether you have [other] vessels that are much closer to the people. If I receive a request that is 300 miles away, I am not obligated to go all that way.

This global distress system from the International Maritime Organization [IMO] is coordinated by the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres [MRCC] — every coastal country has one. In Croatia, it is in Split. In Italy, it is in Rome. They are coordinating and sending people. If they say to me: “Sea-Eye 4, there is a distress call, you have to go!,” then I’m obligated to go. If the vessel is very far away, then my responsibility to assist is smaller.

Of course, we are not satisfied with the recent Italian government decree, and we cannot agree to let people drown and die.

Robin Jaspert

So, only when it makes sense?

Paval

Yes. Now, in the NGO vessels, we coordinate. Several times, another NGO was much closer, and we already had a lot of people on board. Then we coordinate and agree who is going to help these people. We see what is more convenient, for them and for us. We see what is quicker. It depends on the situation; it is difficult to say in general.

Robin Jaspert

But if you are the closest vessel, you can’t choose not to go, because there is an Italian law saying something else?

Paval

Yes, and this is why we are going to court with the Italian government. Of course, we are not satisfied with the recent decree, and we cannot agree to let people drown and die. We will see how it is in the future. We are not politicians. We are seafarers. Our duty is to save people in distress, and we will continue to do this in any case. The rest of the protocol is not in our hands. We are going to do the same as before.

Robin Jaspert

You told me that in January there was a case where the Italian coast guard told you to help a second ship after you saved another vessel that was in distress. They were still asking you to do that even in January — and now they have impounded the ship for doing the same thing?

Paval

Yes!

Robin Jaspert

That’s a little bit weird, isn’t it?

Yanira

It doesn’t make sense.

Vatroslav

There is another person in charge now [laughs].

Paval

In January, the second vessel was not far away from us. I think it was twenty-five or thirty miles away. The day before there was one case where the Italian coast guard rescued some people. There were seventeen dead people onboard. You know how it is with publicity in Europe and in the world at the moment regarding sea rescue and migration movements. Not only at sea, but also on shore.

From Ukraine, from Syria, from Afghanistan, from everywhere — this is a very difficult situation all around the world, not only in the Mediterranean. So, this second case was close to us. We were very surprised that they contacted us, but I also think it was a very human decision. A lot of people died the day before. We were able to help these people and we got permission from MRCC Rome.

Our duty is to save people in distress, and we will continue to do this in any case. The rest of the protocol is not in our hands. We are going to do the same as before.

Now, in this second case we were already very far away. Almost a hundred miles. But there was also not any other ship on scene to help these people. So, we turned around. It was a long way, but there was no one else around to help.

Robin Jaspert

And then you have to go…

Paval

Yes. In my opinion we made the right decision. In [the Italian authorities’] opinion [it was not the right decision], because they claimed that the ship was not in distress. It actually was a big fishing boat. They sent a distress call and we only noticed later on that the vessel was already reaching Italian territorial water. When on a ship, we cannot know what is happening a hundred miles away. So, we are obligated to go there and do our best to check. Sometimes you find a boat.

On the way to this fishing boat, we surprisingly got help from a French sailing boat. They found one vessel with thirty-two people. We saved their lives. These people were not sending any alarm, nothing. Probably they would have come into great danger the next day without water and without food supply. So, things sometimes happen spontaneously, sometimes you know exactly where to go, and sometimes you receive mail with an exact position from support in the air. You can have a thousand missions; every one will be different.

Robin Jaspert

How do you feel about whether civil sea rescue will continue? Are you optimistic about the current developments — or is it getting more and more difficult?

Paval

It’s getting more difficult, but we will continue doing what we are doing now. It is not in our hands. It is in the hands of the European governments. They, the politicians, have to deal with it. But it’s clear for everyone, we have the logo on the ship saying it: leave no one to die. This is what we are going to do. The rest is not in our hands.

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