Images and text by Raphaël Fournier. Published in “AMNESTY – Human Rights Journal” in December 2016.
The “Sea-Eye” crew patrol Libyan waters in order to rescue refugees at sea. The organisation was founded about a year ago by a group of friends. Photographer Raphaël Fournier accompanied their Mission 13.
My time on the Sea-Eye was hard and unique: I saw the situation in the Mediterranean with my own eyes, without the usual media filters, and I was part of the events at the same time. Of course our 11-day Mission 13 was not the worst of its kind. We did not see people drown, nor did we sight dead bodies in rubber boats. But the experience of being there in such a situation renders one more aware of the reality. And I understood various things while being there.
I saw how the NGOs on location are working. Sometimes they cooperate and help one another; sometimes they do not.
There is also the difficulty of turning into a close-knit group when crew members do not know each other beforehand and when they have to spend two weeks with the same people in very close co-existence on a small boat without the option of leaving.
There are many tense situations. In our group there were conflicts, but we managed to overcome our problems. In time our group turned into a true team, and we got very close.
The need for more “action” caused contradictory emotions in all of us: action means refugee boats, and that usually means that people drown and die. We were on the outlook for refugee boats all the time in order to start a rescue operation. It was a mix of competition with other organisations and the genuine wish to help.
The non-profit sea rescue organisation Sea-Eye was founded in 2015 by a group of friends in Germany, in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. The traffickers provide the refugees with rubber or wooden boats that are not seaworthy. Therefore the boats get into distress during the voyage. The organisation bought a fishing cutter – the Sea-Eye – for its rescue missions, and re-furbished and re-equipped it. The 59-year-old boat is not perfect for this task, its engine is capricious and needs a lot of attention.
Since April 2016, different volunteer crews go on two-week rescue missions. They search for refugee boats, receive SOS signals from other rescue boats or from the Mediterranean Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome. When a refugee boat has been sighted, the crew’s task is to provide the refugees with life vests and water, until they are taken on board by the navy or bigger NGO boats. Due to its small size, the Sea-Eye normally does not take refugees on board. In the area off the Libyan coast there are about a dozen further missions of other NGOs, so that four to eight boats are always in operation.
1) Solidarity at Sea: The crew members did not know one another beforehand: Hannes (skipper), Manuela, Ingo, Robin (Sea-Eye aid workers in Malta), Hilde, Karsten, Jens, Dieter, Thomas (left to right).
2) Solidarity at Sea: 5 to 7 October: Preparations for the mission in Malta. Red Cross psychologists prepare the crew for experiences that could await them: violence, injuries, dead bodies, but also potential conflicts among the crew. Handover of boat to the new crew, test drives and security training. The most important manoeuvers are exercised, such as the recovery of dead bodies, communication with refugees, provision of life vests, radio communication, dinghy operation. We meet with the crews of other NGO boats and talk. Provisions are bought and stored; we also store water and diesel. Alcohol is forbidden on board; instead we load dozens of alcohol-free beers.
3) Solidarity at Sea: 9 and 10 October: We meet with two other boats. From Malta we bring spare parts and life vests for the “Sea-Watch 2”, and provisions and blankets for the “Juventa.” We exchange information with the crews. Both boats are from Germany. Further meetings with the “Aquarius” of Médecins sans Frontières and the “Astral” of a Spanish organisation.
4) Solidarity at Sea: 11 October: The MRCC sends us East to rescue a boat on its way to Lampedusa. When we arrive after four hours, the “Vos Hestia” has already started the recovery. It is a fishing boat with 300 refugees on board. We take the refugees to the “Vos Hestia.” At 11 pm our first rescue operation is over.
5) Solidarity at Sea: 12 October: We meet the “Sea-Watch 2” and hand over life vests. In spite of wind force 7, during the night the “Juventa” has rescued refugees on a rubber boat inside the 12-mile-zone. Those are definitely not good conditions to put to sea: wind, waves, night. But the traffickers and the refugees know that only a few weeks remain until the winter. In the evening the crew meet to discuss whether the Sea-Eye, too, should operate within the 12-mile-zone – with the risk of getting caught by the Libyan coast guard. As there is no unanimous vote, we decide against it.
6) Solidarity at Sea: 14 October: A strong wind from South-Southwest favours the departure of boats from the Libyan coast. An SOS signal informs us that two refugee boats are in our area. When we sight one at the horizon, we send the dinghy with 40 life vests ahead. The boat turns out to be a small Libyan fishing boat. A few minutes later and only a few miles further along, the “Juventa” rescues refugees from a rubber boat and a fishing boat. Although all are taken to safety, our crew are slightly frustrated. When a rescue team is prepared to rescue, then its members want to rescue. No matter whether they are needed or not.
The sea looks like oil this morning. The weather prospects for the coming days are not great. We encounter the Libyan coast guard, but no refugee boats. In the evening we get bad news: our water tank is empty. We decide to return to Malta earlier than planned. We arrive there on 17 October.