“We are not a taxi for refugees”

By Lena Klimkeit and Annette Reither.

In dozens of meetings politicians have been discussing how to stop the influx of migrants into Europe. Far away from that scene, sea rescuers are fighting against the misery at sea. But attitudes in society have changed. Donations are lacking. Hate is arriving.

“Be strong and stay strong. We do-gooders love you.” It is not every day that the organisation Iuventa Jugend rettet gets that much encouragement. Recently the private aid organisation from Berlin went on mission again to rescue refugees and migrants in distress.

Jan, Florian and Nadja really have other things to do. But they could no longer bear the daily news about ever more shipwrecks and deaths. Their commitment increasingly brings them hostility. In the Internet they get called “traffickers” and “pests.” “I hope you will die at sea,” is one hateful comment.

“Mentally this renders volunteer work extremely problematic,” says Pauline Schmidt, the organisation’s spokesperson. The attitudes towards migrants have changed – this has also become financially noticeable for the organisation, which is financed exclusively through donations. At the moment the willingness to spend a little bit of money on the rescue operations in the Mediterranean is decreasing. “And we need 40,000 euros per month in order to undertake the rescue missions.”

The idea of Jugend rettet was born in 2015, after around 800 people had died in April in one of the most tragic refugee disasters. One year later the organisation signed the purchase contract for the ship, which was later named “Iuventa.” Three days after the start of the first mission, 426 people were rescued from wooden and rubber boats. Since then the young rescuers have been able to prevent the deaths of more than 6,500 people.

Like the many other private sea rescue organisations, Jugend rettet have to defend themselves against the reproach that they are lending a hand to the traffickers through their presence in the Mediterranean. The attacks do not only come from German living rooms, but from official sources: in late February the EU border protection agency Frontex criticised the rescue operations of the aid organisations off Libya.

The business of criminal networks and traffickers should not be supported by European ships picking up the migrants ever closer to the Libyan coast. This is what Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said in an interview. According to him it meant that the traffickers put ever more migrants on unseaworthy boats. “We must not allow this kind of statement to take root,” says Hans-Peter Buschheuer, spokesperson of the aid organisation Sea-Eye. “We are definitely not a taxi for refugees.”

Recently, researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley, refuted the assumption that the work of the NGOs encourages even more people to dare to escape to Europe. They found out that the number of migrant arrivals in Europe between 2014 and 2016 was highest during the time when there was the smallest number of rescue missions. According to Frontex, lately, 40 % of all rescue actions have been undertaken by private rescuers in the Mediterranean.

Many of the private rescuers operate from Malta. There the contrasts could not be more extreme. The ship of the private sea rescue organisation Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) is in the harbour not far from the Maltese capital Valetta, in between two gigantic luxury yachts. The entire inequality of the world is reflected here in the boats that are moored side by side. Each yacht probably costs more than the entire amount the rescue mission receives in donations.

MOAS, too, complains about people’s lower preparedness to donate. “We are left with only very limited financial means,” says Regina Catambrone, who founded MOAS together with her husband three years ago. The mood in the population has turned against migrants during the past year. And by now there are so many private rescue organisations that all try to enlist donors, she says. It is unclear how things will continue for MOAS, who have rescued 34,000 people since they started.

“One cannot be indifferent. One has to help. It is an experience which changes your life. Suddenly you appreciate the normal things in life, like a bathroom,” Catambrone says. The MOAS rescuers are also facing hate messages on the Internet. “It is the rule, not the exception,” says spokesperson Giulio Tiberio Marostica. The messages depended on concrete incidents like the terror attacks in Brussels. By now nasty insults get blocked.

Source: ORF, Austria

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