Rettungsteammitglied Michael an Bord der Ocean Viking

“It is our task to draw attention to the situation in the Mediterranean” – Interview with Michael, rescue team member of SOS MEDITERRANEE, about the current situation

While the pandemic is attracting all attention, other crises, such as the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, are in danger of being forgotten. Michael, a member of the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescue team, shared his thoughts on the current situation with us. He is a trained emergency paramedic and medical student. From August to October 2019, he was part of the team on board the Ocean Viking.

How are you doing? What are you doing?

Actually, I’m fine. I’m hanging out with a broken foot in the beginning of my digital semester. We got everything we need to stay at home for a longer period of time, but that’s a small comfort considering all that is going on around us.

How do you perceive the COVID-19 crisis as a rescuer on land?

In the face of the spread of the corona virus (SARS-COV2) our society is suddenly confronted with unusual existential questions. The medical and social challenges are enormous. To keep an overview of these developments, to think about them and to develop an attitude without being overwhelmed is a personal challenge for me. The very omnipresence of the topic makes it clear that all these aspects alone could be talked about for a long time. But in the meantime, a lot of things get out of sight. Things that were already totally unacceptable before and now have a different urgency.

What do you mean? Is this pandemic also impacting you as a sea rescuer?

There is a critical situation on the European external borders.

On the Bosnian-Croatian border, thousands of refugees are living in catastrophic conditions, without access to adequate medical care or basic hygiene standards. Protection mechanisms are absent.

Conditions in the refugee camps in the Aegean and on the Greek mainland are totally unacceptable. If there is an outbreak of SARS-COV2 there, it will have fatal consequences.

The situation is no better for people held in Libyan detention centers.

The continuing armed conflict between the unity government and Haftar’s troops exposes them to additional risks. Lack of sanitation and medical care makes COVID-19 an uncontrolled threat there too. According to UNHCR, an outbreak could trigger a “humanitarian catastrophe” [1].

The reasons why people risk fleeing across the Mediterranean still exist. Irrespective of whether ships are on the scene to rescue people from boats that are completely unfit for sea.

This has been tragically demonstrated once again in recent days. Italy [2], Malta [3] and then even Libya [4] have declared their ports as unsafe. Delays have been observed in the response to distress alerts, even though SAR emergency cases had long been known. Reliable and sustainable European solutions are once again lacking for ships belonging to civil rescue organizations. At the same time, they have been asked by the German Ministry of the Interior to refrain from “voyages” to the central Mediterranean earlier this month. Even though constraints exist within the context of this unprecedented health crisis, this is a request that results in diminishing the guarantee of life-saving operations for people in need.

For years, organizations such as SOS MEDITERRANEE have been calling for a proactive search and rescue program and a predictable and coordinated disembarkation system in accordance with international law. Demands that are still valid. Even under extreme circumstances, European states have a duty to rescue and act!

The problem is that European solidarity, which has been conjured up everywhere politically and, in the media, no longer pays any attention to many people’s situations. This is creating new problems, the scale of which threatens to create an immensely greater need for action, not only regarding the spread of SARS-COV2.

What does this mean for the situation in the Mediterranean?

As far as I am concerned, it means that real solidarity across borders is more necessary than ever. It starts by focusing on the issues that receive little or no attention now and must continue with civil society involvement. Why? For a long time now, we have been observing a gradual withdrawal of the European states from sea rescue. The new EUNAVFOR MED Mission IRINI is just another example. The operational area of this new naval mission aimed at implementing the UN arms embargo is located far away from the escape routes from Libya – partly in order to avoid rescuing people in distress at sea.

There is currently no civilian rescue ship active in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea is once again threatening to become a black box. How many people risk dangerously fleeing, perhaps dying in the process, or being forced back to Libya? We do not know for sure. But the Easter-weekend has shown that people continue to flee from the terrible conditions in Libya.

That is precisely why it is our task to continue to draw attention to the situation in the Mediterranean, to inform the public and to pass on the experiences of the rescued people we had on board. For this, organizations like SOS MEDITERRANEE need the tailwind from civil society. Looking away is not an alternative: what happens in the Mediterranean and around concerns us all!

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[1] UNHCR / 03.04.2020 / Libya: humanitarian crisis worsening amid deepening conflict and COVID-19 threat
[2] The Guardian / 08.04.2020 / Italy declares own ports “unsafe” to stop migrants arriving
[3] Reuters / 09.04.2020 / Malta says it can no longer rescue, accept migrants
[4] IOM / 09.04.2020 / Libya Considers Its Ports Unsafe for the Disembarkation of Migrants
Photo credits: Laurence Bondard / SOS MEDITERRANEE