By Ben Cowles in Britain:
Friday, October 4, 2019
‘It will not be easy to reconcile how Europe is allowing this to happen’
HANNAH WALLACE BOWMAN speaks to the Star about her time on board the Ocean Viking, an NGO migrant rescue ship that has saved hundreds of lives despite Fortress Europe’s dogged efforts to stop them
“I CAN’T even begin to describe how overwhelming the situation in Libya and the Mediterranean is,” says Hannah Wallace Bowman, communications manager on board the Ocean Viking, a migrant rescue ship operated by French charities Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee.
“I don’t think I will really be coming to terms with it anytime soon,” she says after having spent close to two months at sea and saving the lives of over 650 people.
The Ocean Viking, which launched in August, is MSF and SOS Mediterranee’s return to sea-based migrant rescues. The charities had been operating the Aquarius for several years before, but were forced to stop in December 2018 after what MSF Sea described as “sustained attacks on [its] search and rescue [operations] by European states.”
Once again, instead of allowing the crew to safely carry the rescued to a safe port — as international maritime law requires all sea captains to do — Italy, Malta and the European Union made every effort to prevent the Ocean Viking, and other ships of the civil migrant rescue fleet, from doing so.
Bowman had been on board the Ocean Viking since the beginning. She spoke to me right after disembarking for the first time in over three weeks.
“We’ve seen people who have wounds from melted plastic that has been burnt onto their skin. We had people who were made to call their families to ask for money while they were having physical violence inflicted upon them.
“I can only begin to imagine how devastating that must be to have your brother, your sister, your child on the phone, hearing them going through that pain and not being able to do anything.
“When I actually get a chance to sit and think about what it is that I have experienced with these people, I’m not entirely sure how easily I’ll be able to reconcile the fact that Europe is allowing this to continue and that we are demonising the people who are doing the work to save these people.”
The EU responded to the so-called “migrant crisis” in 2015 not with rescues but by launching an anti-human-trafficking naval mission called Eunavfor Med, which later became known as Operation Sophia. Though its primary mission was to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, the mission’s ships are estimated to have saved the lives of 45,000 migrants from a watery Mediterranean grave.
However, in April, after pressure from Italy’s then far-right … coalition government, the EU agreed to pull Operation Sophia’s SAR ships and increase funds to the so-called Libyan coastguard (LCG), which has been pushing refugees back to the war-torn country ever since.
“As it stands, Operation Sophia has placed all its emphasis on aerial assets,” Bowman says. “So they don’t have any rescue capacity, which means they can watch people from the sky and they can also direct interceptions.
“They can empower the LCG in order to intercept boats. But if they see a shipwreck, they’re pretty powerless to do anything.”
Worse, the Libyan coastguard and Operation Sophia do not collaborate with the civil fleet, even when their ships are in the vicinity of a boat in distress, Bowman says.
“When we’ve tried to contact the relevant authorities, they simply don’t respond. If they do pick up the phone, they don’t speak English, which is a requirement of your co-ordination centre.
“So we’re pretty alone out there. At least that’s what it feels like.”
The inhumanity of Europe’s handling the crisis was illustrated on September 20 when the Ocean Viking rescued 35 people in a wooden boat from waters within Malta’s search and rescue area.
The Maltese authorities later sent a vessel to the Ocean Viking to transfer the 35 people picked up in its waters but would not take in the 182 other refugees — including a newborn baby, several children and a pregnant woman — who the crew had saved just a few days before in Libyan waters.
“It was a really difficult moment. We had to explain the reason some people were allowed to get off and others weren’t was simply down this fairly arbitrary division in terms of search and rescue regions.
“We were really worried as to how people were going to respond. But I was incredibly impressed with the level of dignity that people received the news. I certainly wouldn’t have taken it as they did.
“Some of them took off to lay down and cry. Others just took themselves inside and had a quiet moment. It was a really sombre atmosphere on the ship.
“This decision really revealed the level to which this system is so entirely dysfunctional.”
Terrible as this situation was, and how utterly demoralising it must have been for the migrants left on board, it seems it wasn’t as bad as what happened in August on the Open Arms, a NGO migrant rescue ship operated by a Spanish charity.
The vessel went 19 days with close to 100 refugees crammed on board. Italy’s then interior minister Matteo Salvini’s stubborn refusal to allow the rescued into Lampedusa left the boat languishing for days within sight of land.
The charity’s founder Oscar Camps shared videos of the tense situation on board as arguments broke out between the crew, the Italian coastguard and the rescued people. In one clip, nine refugees throw themselves overboard in an attempt to either reach the island or end their own lives.
Eventually, after several emergency medical evacuations, an Italian court ordered the ship’s temporary seizure and brought the migrants to land.
“We also endured a very horrific standoff at the same time as the Open Arms incident,” Bowman reminds me.
At the time, the Ocean Viking was carrying 356 refugees and had also been denied a port of safety by Italy and Malta. Other EU nations ignored its calls for help.
“People were throwing themselves overboard on the Open Arms and we had people threatening to go on hunger strike.
“They were absolutely terrified that we were going to send them back to Libya. They were asking us every day what’s going to happen and where we were going. And we couldn’t tell them anything.
“We had to say we’re really sorry, we don’t know, we’re working as hard as we can, but we promise we won’t take you back to Libya.
“Fourteen days at sea waiting in very cramped conditions in the middle of the summer really pushes people to breaking point.
“These people had been through so much already. And they were now in a situation where they were being told once again that they’re not wanted, they’re not welcome, that people don’t see them as human beings.
“One of the things the crew wondered was how we got into this state. It was only a year ago that the Aquarius was prevented from entering a harbour for just a few days and the world took notice. And now we were weeks on end and it was just commonplace. It was the new normal.”
I ask Bowman how she feels about Europe’s handling of the crisis. She says the overriding emotion is one of sadness.
“We’ve literally just got off the ship, just touched ground for the first time in over three weeks. But for the people that we have rescued, their journey is not over.
“They’re entering into a context where there are a lot of misconceptions about who refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers are. The asylum system process they’re about to go through is incredibly arduous.
“The fact remains that no-one knows how many people, as I speak to you now, are trying to make that journey across the central Mediterranean. We know it’s the deadliest migratory route in the world, but we don’t really know exactly how deadly it is.
“On this last rotation, we had a family: a father, mother and four kids, who’d been detained in Libya. They tried to make the crossing twice previously and had been intercepted by the LCG and forced back into detention.
“They had been treated by MSF while they were in detention, which they were incredibly grateful for because they said there were other people who weren’t as fortunate, who lost children.
“They told me this was their last attempt. They said: ‘Look, we don’t even know what we would have done. Honestly, if we hadn’t made it, then we would rather have been dead in the water. At least then it would be over. At least then we would be able to rest.’
“I understand that is really difficult for people to put themselves in the shoes of an individual for whom their reality is so incredibly removed from their own. But I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’re so lacking in a sense of shared humanity. What world are we creating? Where are we heading?”
It sometimes feels like we’re heading towards a kind of eco-fascism, comes my response. As our ecosystems are increasing devastated by climate change, I worry that it will be those forced to flee from the worst effects that will bear the brunt of, and the blame for, climate destruction.
“We can just keep building the walls higher,” Bowman says, “but they can only go so high.
“Unless we really address the root causes as to why it is these people are forced onto the move, unless we address the situation in Libya and provide legal options in order that they can escape, then nothing is going to change and we’re still going to be a necessity in the central Mediterranean Sea.
“The very organisations, the very people who are simply trying to do the job that Europe has left by removing its search and rescue capacity are also now the organisations and individuals that are being singled out as criminals.”
With alt-right poster boy Salvini no longer in government, perhaps things could change for the civil migrant rescue fleet. Indeed, late last month the governments of Malta, Italy, France and Germany met in Valletta and agreed to set up “regulations for a temporary emergency mechanism” to help Italy and Malta deal with the crisis — note the word “temporary”.
Bowman says it’s too early to tell if any of this will have a positive effect, but she does hold out hope for the future. She says she has to.
“If I didn’t believe we have the possibility to shift the way people see what we do and the way that we deal with one another as humans, I wouldn’t be doing the job that I do.
“The situation now is quite literally leaving people to die at sea. It’s leaving people with a totally impossible choice whereby they are having to decide between staying where they are and suffering or risking their lives at sea.
“I feel the shift will come from civil society, from people once again embracing what it means to be a human being with shared responsibility, with community, with compassion.
“I have to believe that things could be different. And I believe that part of that change comes from people having the tools to understand the reality that is playing out there.”
Hannah Wallace Bowman is a communications manager for MSF.
The Civil Fleet
SINCE the EU abandoned its search and rescue missions in the central Mediterranean sea in April, a number of NGOs have stepped up to do the humanitarian work Europe should be doing.
These NGO migrant rescue ships have become known as the civil fleet. Here is a brief rundown of the most active ships in the central Mediterranean since April 2019.
Ocean Viking: Operated by French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, this ship has saved up to 650 lives since April. It returned to sea on Thursday.
Alan Kurdi: This ship, named after the Syrian Kurdish boy who was found dead on a Turkish beach, is operated by the German Charity Sea Eye. It has saved around 182 lives. The charity is currently raising funds to return to sea. You can donate here.
Alex: Operated by the Italian charity Mediterranea Saving Humans, this ship saved 54 people in July. The Alex is still being held by the Italian authorities after it docked in Lampedusa.
Mare Jonio: Also operated by Mediterranea Saving Humans, the Mare Jonio has saved the lives of 106 refugees in August. The ship has also been siezed in Italy.
Sea Watch III: Operated by German charity Sea Watch, this ship has saved the lives of roughly 117 people since April. The boat has remained in the hands of the Italian authorities since June when Captain Carola Rackete disembarked 52 migrants in Lampedusa in defiance of Matteo Salvini.
Open Arms: Operated by the Spanish NGO Open Arms, the ship has saved 124 lives in August. The ship set sail again for the central Mediterranean on October 2.
Eleonore: Operated by German charity Mission Lifeline. The ship has saved 104 lives in August. The Elenore has been seized by the Italian authorities in Sicily since it finished its last mission on September 2.
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Johanna just wanted her tiny baby to have a life worth living.
So fleeing violence, poverty, and hunger, she gambled on a flimsy, inflatable dinghy — hoping it would take them to the safety of Europe. But it ended in tragedy.
The boat deflated, and 7-month-old baby Joseph died.
Over 900 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year — it could be THOUSANDS if it wasn’t for humanitarian rescue boats. And that’s the problem: some EU countries are now shamefully blocking those civilian rescue missions from leaving port.
All but one.
In the entire Mediterranean, there’s now just one civilian rescue boat still operating: the Open Arms. Their commitment is incredible, facing violent coast guards, stormy seas, and daily heartbreak. They’ve rescued over 60,000 people from the sea — and they’re desperate for funding. We can help.
Many of us are facing serious challenges of our own — but this is our chance to be a lifeline for some of the world’s most vulnerable, people who may otherwise be left to drown, miles out at sea.
If enough of us chip in, we could help fund this rescue ship through the icy winter weeks, support other missions fighting through administrative red tape, and supercharge our fights for human rights everywhere. Donate what you can now:
€10 helps rescue 1 person
€20 helps rescue 2 persons
€49 helps rescue 5 persons
€98 helps rescue 10 persons
€200 helps rescue 20 persons
They aren’t just migrants, or immigrants, or refugees. They are humans: ordinary people in the most terrifying circumstances, just trying to live their lives and keep their families safe. We can’t look away.
And yet that’s exactly what the EU is doing: paying for cruel detention centres, drone surveillance, and violent patrols to keep people trapped in countries like Libya, away from its shores. Civilians shouldn’t have to run rescue missions — but the Open Arms crew is being forced to step in because if it didn’t, thousands would be left to drown.
But it’s incredibly expensive work — and as the only rescue boat still able to operate in the Mediterranean, the area they cover is beyond massive, and this is the most freezing, deadly time of the year. They need urgent funding, and if enough of us chip in, we could:
Help fund Open Arms rescue missions through this critical winter period;
Provide emergency food, life vests, and hygiene kits to people being rescued;
Fund legal battles to cut through the red tape stopping other rescue missions;
Power our human rights campaigning to protect vulnerable people around the world.
Our donations will save lives, it’s that simple. And in another world, it could be us on those tiny boats, holding our youngest, desperately hoping that help will come. We can be that help — chip in what you can now:
€10 helps rescue 1 person
€20 helps rescue 2 persons
€49 helps rescue 5 persons
€98 helps rescue 10 persons
€200 helps rescue 20 persons
For years our movement has stood by the world’s most vulnerable — whether it’s refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, the Rohingya running from genocide, or Yemen’s starving children. We do it because every single life is precious — no matter where you’re from, or the colour of your skin. This is a moment to stand by that belief again, reaching out, with open arms.
With fierce hope and determination — always,
Camille, Mike, Patricia, Mohammad, Marigona, Aloys, Bert and the whole team at Avaaz
PS – This might be your first donation to our movement ever. But what a first donation! Did you know that Avaaz relies entirely on small donations from members like you? That’s why we’re fully independent, nimble and effective. Join the over 1 million people who’ve donated to make Avaaz a real force for good in the world.
PPS: The cost estimates above come from the average expenses incurred by civilian rescue missions like Open Arms to take people on board the ship and cover their upkeep with emergency assistance.
Baby, six months, dies hours after being saved from Mediterranean (Al Jazeera)
Revealed: the great European refugee scandal (The Guardian)
Migrants’ wedding rings lost at sea found by rescue boat weeks later (Independent)