Hans Riess senior to join rescue mission off the coast of Libya.

By Stephanie Milloni.

Diessen, Germany. A butcher from the market town of Diessen will take part in an aid mission in the Mediterranean. Eight-member crew will secure refugee boats.

Dead bodies of children that are washed ashore. People who are squeezed together, more dead than alive, on overcrowded rubber boats. We all know the images of the human drama, which is taking place in the Mediterranean due to refugee movements. Hans Riess senior from Diessen was sitting in front of the TV one day, watching a report about refugees at risk of drowning in the sea and aid organisations that save human lives.

“I could actually take part in this,” the sailor said to himself. As a firefighter and member of the volunteer river guards he has experience in rescuing people from the water. He searched the Internet and found the organisation ‘Sea-Eye’, “the only one in Bavaria, located in Regensburg.”

Riess drove to Regensburg to participate in a meeting of the aid workers and to get an impression of the organisation. And he liked what he saw. The volunteer aid workers had different political attitudes, but all were committed to the issue, he says. Some were sailors, who, according to Riess, are motivated by a sailor’s ethos, namely that “one cannot let someone miserably drown.”

Therefore Riess now travelled to Licata, Sicily, in order to participate for two weeks in a Sea-Eye mission. On 6 March it will start; two weeks with eight people on a boat: a skipper, two bridge guards, an engineer, a doctor and a rescue team. The 62-year-old man from Diessen will be responsible for guard duty on the bridge. “It is a four-hour watch, around the clock.” Early in the year, a crew meeting took place.

The Sea-Eye crew cruise international waters off the coast of Libya on a 26-metre former fishing cutter. “It is an enormous sea area, 300 kms wide, in which several rescue organisations are operating,” Riess says. The refugees are only taken on board in case of emergency. The task of the rescue workers is to secure the refugee boats, to relieve them with life rafts and to call the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), which then takes further steps. “The Sea-Eye has 800 life vests on board,” Riess says. The crew also distribute drinking water. The crew approach the refugee boats in a dinghy because of the risk of refugees trying to enter the cutter if it comes closer. During such an action the refugee boat could capsize.

The non-profit organisation Sea-Eye e.V. was founded in autumn 2015 by entrepreneur Michael Buschheuer with family members and friends, with the aim of rescuing refugees in distress during their perilous escape to Europe. This information can also be found on the organisation’s homepage: “The boat was re-equipped for the purpose of sea rescue, and on 22 February 2016 started its voyage to the Mediterranean.” It goes on to state that last year the Sea-Eye rescued 5,568 people from distress.

Even though the rescue workers focus on humanitarian action, i.e. on not standing by while people are drowning, it has not been possible to entirely keep out politics. The Director of the EU border protection agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, claimed in an interview last week that missions by aid organisations like Doctors without Borders (MSF), Sea Watch or Sea-Eye were encouraging traffickers to send off even more refugees on non-seaworthy boats.

In response the organisations point to the fact that the navy operation “Mare Nostrum” was terminated in 2015 for the same reason. Following this, thousands of people drowned. As a reaction Sea Watch, Sea-Eye, MSF and others came to people’s aid with private boats. Michael Buschheuer, too, rejects the criticism, but offers to support Frontex in uncovering trafficking activities, as can be read on the homepage.

Sea-Eye, like other such organisations, depends on donations, even though the helpers work for free. Still there are costs, for example for running the boat, provisions for the crew, and medical and electronic equipment. According to a press release, this year around 250,000 euros will be needed. Riess placed a donations box in his butcher shop before Christmas and will do so again now.

Riess paid for his trip to Italy from his own pocket, only provisions will be paid for. “But I take some smoked meat,” the butcher says. He does not know what awaits him off the Libyan coast, nor how it will feel to be directly confronted with the refugees’ misery. But it is also possible that nothing will happen during the two weeks. “If there is onshore wind, the boats cannot start in Libya.”

Information: The course of the Sea-Eye can be followed on a tracker on the organisation’s Internet homepage.