Sea rescue workers in the Mediterranean outraged about “absurd” criticism

These days, critical voices against volunteer rescue operations in the Mediterranean are growing louder. Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz recently demanded that the “NGO madness” be stopped. The rescue workers firmly reject his accusations.

Vienna/Berlin. The rescue organisations which are on mission in the Mediterranean to rescue refugees in distress, are facing increasing criticism. The recent accusations by Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who denounced an “NGO madness,” have been well publicized. It is with outrage that the NGOs reject his claim that the helpers are lending a hand to traffickers through their efforts.

“We do not have any contact with traffickers and we are not escape helpers,” Hans-Peter Buschheuer, spokesperson of the German NGO Sea-Eye, explains. He says that the accusation that rescue organisations pick up refugees in Libyan territorial waters and take them to Italy, is absurd.

“We are portrayed like taxis that pick up refugees. That is nonsense.” The Sea-Eye’s eight-member crew provide the refugees in distress with life vests, water and medical aid. The NGO’s 26 metre-long former fishing cutter is too small to take the refugees on board. Therefore they are only looked after until a larger ship arrives. “Our job is to save lives, not to transport people,” says Buschheuer. The organisation informs that they have saved about 6,000 people from drowning since April last year.

The kind of accusations that Foreign Minister Kurz brought forward against NGOs last week, are not new. The EU border protection agency Frontex had already claimed that the operations of rescue organisations were encouraging traffickers to pack ever more migrants onto unseaworthy boats. According to the EU border protection agency, private rescue organisations are taking on an increasing number of rescue operations in the Mediterranean. In 2016, NGOs participated in more than 40% of all rescue operations, compared with 5% in 2015, according to a mid-February report by Frontex.

The report caused a political debate in Italy. Particularly right-wing parties demand an investigation of the NGOs on mission between Sicily and Libya, most of which are German. A few weeks ago, the prosecuting attorney’s office of Catania started an inquiry into the financing of some rescue organisations. The prosecuting attorney’s office in Sicily underlines, however, that no formal investigations are taking place, nor are there any accused.

According to Italian media reports, up to 13 NGO boats are on mission in the Mediterranean. Six of them belong to five NGOs in Germany.

The rescue organisations reject the accusation that they pick up refugees in Libyan territorial waters, i.e. less than 12 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. “Of course we are not moving in Libyan waters; we do not want to endanger our own people,” says Sea-Eye in view of the situation in the civil-war-torn country Libya.

The organisation, which was founded in autumn 2015 by Michael Buschheuer, is financed through private donations. As of April 2017, the organisation will use a second boat. Last year Sea-Eye spent 250,000 euros – mainly on diesel and medication. The helpers pay their own way, the organisation informs. Besides students and retirees, they are working persons who volunteer as they want to use their leave days for their commitment at sea.

“We are committed laypersons who are convinced that civilisation should not stop at our borders. We would not be needed if the professionals did this work,” opines Buschheuer and especially criticises Frontex, who do not actively search for people in distress and who “apparently condone deaths.” If the NGOs withdrew, as Kurz demands, there would be many more deaths in the Mediterranean. “And a deterrence through deaths cannot be civilisation,” says Buschheuer.

Source: Salzburger Nachrichten, Austria



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