“A war is less dangerous for the refugees than this crossing” (27 May 2016)

By Stefan Aigner, Regensburg digital

On Friday 27 May, the Sea-Eye reported to have rescued approximately 600 people off the African coast. Michael Buschheuer, an entrepreneur from Regensburg, founded this project. We spoke with him about his motivation and experiences.

Mr Buschheuer, a few months ago you founded an organisation and bought a boat, the Sea-Eye, which is now cruising the African coast to rescue refugees. An exceptional project.

I don’t think that it is that exceptional. For a painter from Bavaria this kind of project is maybe a bit unusual. But for a fisherman in Italy it would be natural. Basically I don’t do anything different from someone who sorts clothes for refugees, or who is active in palliative care or the fire brigade. In our society it should be normal that we spend a few hours of our time on volunteer work, which does not generate financial profit. That is not exceptional.

How did this idea develop?

The starting point was my rage about a radio report, which casually informed that the Mare Nostrum project was going to be discontinued. A small piece of news, which just flew by, but which has had enormous repercussions. The Italians have not created Mare Nostrum for fun. They have invested nine to eleven million Euros per month, because so many refugees were out there. At some point Italy turned to Europe and asked for financial support. But it didn’t arrive. No one wanted to contribute.

Instead there was a European follow-up initiative – project Triton by border control agency FRONTEX. The investment was no longer nine, but only 2.5 million Euros per month. The intervention area was limited to the Italian coast, and the mission no longer had any connection to the rescue of human beings. De facto, an important project was simply discontinued, in spite of having rescued about 180.000 people. This is an unbelievable thing to happen. I often spoke about this with a friend. We soon decided that it wouldn’t help to talk and be enraged, but that we had to do something. A week later the idea was born to get a ship and to go down there. In order to do that we founded an organisation and the whole thing got moving.

How many people are active in the organisation?

There are about 50 members, who really have registered. But including the crew and other people who work with us, we are more than 200. You find every kind of person, from the 20-year-old Rasta woman to the 76-year-old professor. And we do not have chatterboxes, who just want to talk or try out something. Whoever participates in the project has carefully considered the issue and pushes for action. This is the only way.

You depend on donations for the project. About 250,000 Euros are being mentioned. What do you need the money for?

This is the lowest cost estimation of what we will need to continue until the end of October. It covers diesel and whatever else is needed. The boat is not included. The operation as such costs Euros 1,000 to 1,500 per day, in spite of the fact that everyone on board is a volunteer. No one is paid a single cent. Flights and travel costs are not reimbursed. The volunteers pay for everything themselves.

So far the Sea-Eye was mentioned twice in the headlines in connection with the rescue of refugees. What exactly happened?

I’ll start at the beginning. It was our plan to start on 20 April. But we arrived in Sicily one month earlier, because the journey from Sassnitz, Germany (where the Sea-Eye was tied up previously) was less problematic than we thought. During our third mission we had three concrete operations. The first was only about finding people who had been thrown overboard. I say “only”, because that was entirely hopeless. It was a helpless search, until darkness fell at some point. There was never a chance of survival for people without life vests, who are not able to swim, eight hours after they were thrown overboard.

How did you know that people had been thrown overboard?

A refugee boat was rescued and the survivors spoke about it. Then we were called. It was theoretically possible that someone had been holding on to a canister or some such thing, but in the end it was not the case.

After that the weather was so bad that no refugee boats could start. The start is only possible when the wind blows from the South. And then there was a night when some South-eastern wind was announced. It was a potential moment for people smugglers to send off boats. However, in the morning the waves were so high that we excluded the possibility of boats being out there. But in fact an alert came in.

Where do such alerts come from? How do we have to imagine that?

In this case from the MRCC Rome. That is the Mediterranean Sea Rescue Centre in Rome, which, on a voluntary basis, supervises the sea area off the African coast. They located a boat. We arrived more or less at the same time with Sea-Watch (the first such project from Berlin), who secured the first boat. And then there was an immediate second search, because another boat was reported. But that boat was found much further South than where we were looking and where it should have been, at least according to the GPS dates. We quickly realised that it was probably a different boat and that there had to be another one out there. We continued to search until late at night, but we did not find anything. I think it highly likely that there was indeed a third boat, which simply sank.

The press celebrated you for this operation

Yes. We received too many laurels although we were not involved in the rescue ourselves. We were thinking with great concern of the moment when we would have to undertake a rescue ourselves. And during our next mission, when I was not on board, it happened. The Sea-Eye sighted a boat by coincidence. We provided the refugees with life vests, blankets and water, until the arrival of the Dignity I, a ship belonging to Doctors without Borders, which is capable to take many people on board.

Your mission consists mainly of searching for boats and then staying with them, until larger boats arrive to take the people on board. How many people could you take on board in an emergency?

We are not sure. If our ship were a refugee ship sent off by people smugglers, one could put 500 on board. But we do not wish to harm anyone. We want people to survive. If the weather is good, we can take 100, if it is bad, 30. In the end it depends on the situation.

How does such a mission take place? Does the boat go out every day?

The boat is out there for two weeks. The distance from Malta to the operations area is about 350 kms. In the best case scenario, one needs 24 hours to get there, but normally it is 32 hours. The boat remains in the area for 13 days. That is how long diesel, water and provisions last. Then we return, tank up, and change the crew. Then we go back to the operations area.

Earlier you mentioned the people smugglers. How do you regard their role? Do any “refugee helpers” (Fluchthelfer) exist, in a more positive sense?

No. Not on this route. I think that even war is not as dangerous as this crossing. I saw a rubber boat with 60 people in two metre waves. Women were on board and a 2-year-old child, and some asshole had sold them a ticket to die. Those who put human beings into such a situation are never helpers, but murderers. If they had a minimum of humanitarian sensitivity, they could put only 40 people onto a boat. If somebody can buy a rubber boat, then they should also be able to pull the nails from a wooden floor. After all that I have seen, it is clear that this business and its actors are entirely contemptuous of human life.

The death rate was 1:52 last year – without the estimated number of undetected bodies, which is not measurable. No one knows how high it is. The MRCC Rome once said that last year not a single boat disappeared. From their point of view that is true. Any boat, which has been located, is finally found. The people on it are either still alive or they have drowned. But on the high seas you do not see and know everything that happens.

There are boats that never send an emergency call, some that capsize inside the 12-mile-zone, some were out when the weather was too bad, some were sunk by competing people smugglers – even that happens. You never hear about them. They are never located.

The Sea-Watch has found 40 per cent of all boats last year by sighting them and not through an emergency call. Or, like in our case with the third boat. It never reappears. No one will ever know whether it existed and how many people were on it.

How well informed are the refugees in the boats? Do they carry a satellite phone to make an emergency call? How do they know the course?

It is all speculation. There are boats, in which the people are knowledgeable. There are more privileged boats with fewer people and more balanced conditions. But many know nothing and arrive in totally overloaded boats.

Just an example, so that you see how it works: very many people appear with broken wrists. That is because during the transport to the boat, their hands are tied together, so that there is no trouble when the boats are filled up quickly. A container truck takes them to the beach, they are pushed out and many break their wrists in the process. That is because they have no idea what is awaiting them.

Many do not know the sea at all. Many are told, “Move towards the lights. That is Europe.” But it is an oil drilling rig just off the Libyan coast. You know, when there is a functioning government, the coast guard functions as well. But here the boats attempt to leave the 12-mile-zone unseen, under cover of darkness, because only outside this zone can they escape and no longer be pursued. During that time a satellite phone is not useful as it can be located.

There are people who are sent off without any phone at all. And there are others who can phone right from the start, because for whatever reason, it is not a problem. Sometimes the people smugglers themselves call and report that they have sent off a boat and provide the approximate position.

Do you have to face problems or negative feedback about your mission?

Of course there are emails or some comments on the Internet. And it is ugly if letters arrive at my private address where my family lives. But we can handle some drunk Nazis who sit in front of their computers. However, we had to make a great effort to tackle the excessive bureaucracy in Germany, especially since we were doing something unusual for which there is no form. But that is not a problem, it is just a hurdle.

There are also no problems from the people who work with us or contribute on the spot. Everyone who is there, like SOS Méditerranée, the Sea-Watch, or Doctors without Borders trust and understand each other completely. And then there are the official agencies, like FRONTEX, the EU NAFOR med (a multi-national EU military operation) and the MRCC Rome. The MRCC Rome has a very positive attitude towards us. The military and FRONTEX are different. It is unclear how the situation will develop. Their mandate is to eliminate people smugglers and to push back waves of refugees. We have something different in mind.

You started this mission. You were on board the Sea-Eye yourself and have seen and lived through quite a number of things. How do you feel when you follow discussions about refugee policies in Germany?

One bears no relation to the other. In our organisation we do not debate the policies and we do not make statements. We have an organisation which rescues people in distress from the sea. Full stop. That is all we wish to do. We all have in common that we do not want to let people drown, never mind that there are many different opinions among ourselves concerning the country’s interior political discussion.

And how do you personally think?

When we say that we rescue refugees off the coast, we actually often get the reply, “Well, were should we place them? They won’t get asylum in Germany. It cannot continue like that.” That is depressing. Somehow it seems that people sometimes do not listen to what they are saying. Should we let the refugees drown? I find that unbearable. We have forgotten that we discuss other human beings. Because we simply throw basic values overboard. Because people wilfully get rid of their education, wilfully stop informing themselves and avoid any contact with refugees, but rather grumble.

That does not befit us, given our high development standard. The same people are able to get knowledgeable about the number of pixels on their flat screens, but the information emerging from that screen should suddenly be too challenging for them? I think that people are more capable than that. They do understand. But they do not want to understand. I do not wish to trivialize the problems that we are facing. But we won’t solve these problems with a shitty comment like, “We cannot continue like this.”

One does not have to be a fan of European integration policies or of any distribution quotas. But I expect constructive criticism. I expect that people lend a hand. And it is worth it. I have never met so many great people as in project Sea-Eye. Everybody is contributing. I would do it all over again.