European Union returns refugees to Libyan slavery


This 23 January 2018 video says about itself:

New videos expose torture of African refugees in Libya

New videos have emerged showing African refugees being abused in Libya. Illegal detention centres, extortion and slavery have become common as many people trying to reach Europe are either caught or returned to Libya.

Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid reports.

By Ben Cowles:

Monday, December 2, 2019

Europe suggests NGO rescuers hand refugees back to Libya’s ‘criminal groups’

THE European maritime authorities are ducking their responsibility for refugees crossing the Mediterranean and, worse, are referring NGO rescue ships to “criminal groups”, the refugee rescue fleet has told the Star.

Two NGO-operated ships, the Alan Kurdi and the Ocean Viking, saved over 100 people from unseaworthy boats during three separate missions in the central Mediterranean last Thursday after the refugees had fled human rights abuses in Libya.

Both ships contacted the Libyan maritime authorities, as international law dictates, but their calls were ignored.

Maltese and Italian authorities have been asked to provide the rescue ships with a port of safety, but none had been offered by the time the Star went to press.

Conditions on board the Alan Kurdi — operated by German charity Sea Eye and named after a three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy whose dead body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 — have deteriorated dramatically since it rescued 84 people last week.

“It’s insane. No-one is taking responsibility for this,” Sea Eye’s head of communication Julian Pahlke told the Star.

Sea Eye's crew pull refugees from an unseaworthy boat in the central Mediterranean

This photo shows Sea Eye’s crew pulling refugees from an unseaworthy boat in the central Mediterranean.

“Four people collapsed on board the ship on Sunday. Two people have collapsed today. A woman tried to kill herself on Saturday by jumping overboard. She was evacuated to Malta.

“Everyone on board is exhausted. It’s cold and it’s windy and people are sleeping on deck covered in blankets. Our team is so stressed that it’s getting hard for them to look after the rescued.”

When the Alan Kurdi’s crew contacted the maritime rescue co-ordination centres in Malta, Rome and even Bremen in Germany, the latter suggested that the ship should contact the Libyan coastguard.

“We are not going to do that,” Mr Pahlke said. “We are not going to break international law by handing refugees over to criminal groups and back to a war zone.”

The Ocean Viking — jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) — was in international waters between Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa with 60 refugees on board as the Star went to press. Its crew also refused to break international law.

Libya cannot be considered a place of safety,” SOS Mediterranee director of operations Frederic Penard told the Star.

“Everybody says this every day, including European leaders and their governments. The situation in the country is very well documented.

“But at the same time, European leaders refuse to accept responsibility for the co-ordination of some of our cases, including the designation of a port of safety, and they keep referring us back to the Libyan coastguard, which is unable to provide a place of safety because their country is not safe.

“The European Union’s policies here are grossly incoherent. On the one hand, they clearly acknowledge that the situation in Libya is a problem, which clearly disqualifies the country as being safe. But on the other hand they refuse to abide by international maritime conventions.”

The EU withdrew all of its search and rescue ships in April after pressure from Italy’s then far-right … coalition government. Since then, a small number of NGO ships have been the only vessels in the Mediterranean carrying out the humanitarian work formerly done by the bloc.

Many NGO activists have been persecuted for their efforts and charities such as Sea Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Mission Lifeline and Jugend Rettet have had their ships seized by the Italian and Maltese authorities.

MSF UK humanitarian representative Liz Harding warned that despite the EU’s extremely limited dedicated search and rescue presence in the Mediterranean, people continue to attempt to cross the world’s deadliest migration route.

Ms Harding told the Star: “MSF calls on EU member states, including the UK, to urgently provide proactive and sufficient search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as to end punitive actions against NGOs trying to provide life-saving assistance.

“Additionally, there must be sustainable, reliable and predictable disembarkation mechanism for survivors in safe places where they will be treated humanely and will be able to seek asylum. Libya is not, and cannot be considered, a place of safety.”

You can follow the Star’s coverage of the civil refugee rescue fleet here.

A FIVE-DAY standoff that left over 100 refugees stranded at sea finally came to an end today when the EU authorities allowed two NGO rescue ships to dock in Italy. The Alan Kurdi, operated by German charity Sea Eye, and the Ocean Viking, crewed jointly by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), saved the lives of 144 refugees last Thursday in three separate missions. It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon, however, when the Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando responded to the Alan Kurdi’s plea for shelter on Twitter that the two ships were granted a port of safety: here.

German mayor driven away by anti-refugee racists


This 23 November 2919 video from Germany says about itself (translated):

Because of witchhunt: Mayoress gives up office | Sky Germany

Solidarity from state and federal politics: Martina Angermann had condemned the behaviour of a “paramilitary” gang who had tied an Iraqi to a tree.

Mayor Martina Angermann, MDR photo

Translated from Dutch NOS TV, 22 November 2019:

The mayor of the German town of Arnsdorf has resigned her post after continuing threats. Martina Angermann (61) has been sick at home with a burnout since February and has applied for early retirement.

Arnsdorf, a place with some 5000 inhabitants in the eastern state of Saxony, came in the news in 2016 when four men tied an Iraqi refugee with psychological problems to a tree. One of the perpetrators was a municipal councillor on behalf of the right-wing populist

Dear NOS and other journalists: stop abusing the word ‘populist’ as an euphemism for neo-fascist racists.

party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Mayor Angermann has strongly condemned the action several times, which led to a storm of criticism, hatred and (death) threats from the right wing.

Incidentally, the investigation into the abuse case was quickly cut off and the four men were not on trial.

Witchhunt

Last month the AfD group in the Arnsdorf local council called on mayor Angermann to resign because of her illness. The party threatened to put her position to a vote, but it did not come to that.

According to the German news site Focus, Angermann’s party, the Social Democratic SPD, speaks of a witchhhunt against the mayor. “For months she has been verbally attacked, threatened and intimidated,” says party secretary Homann. Minister of Justice Lambrecht says to broadcaster MDR: “If people withdraw from their social involvement because of threats, then our democracy will be jeopardized.”

Dear Ms Lambrecht and other SPD politicians: you are correct in this. However, the racism which now has driven Mayor Angermann into illness and retirement is partly the fault of your party. As your CDU-CSU-SPD coalition government, eg, stopped the investigation into the far-right paramilitary violence against that Iraqi refugee in Arnsdorf. And as that government massively deports refugees to war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, falsely claimed to be ‘safe’.

The student’s association (Asta) at the University of Hamburg has been bombarded with hate mail and threats of violence after students protested against a founding member of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), Bernd Lucke, who returned to his teaching post at the university: here.

Greek right-wing government attacks civil liberties


This video says about itself:

Protesters denounce criminal negligence of the Greek Coast Guard during recent migrant boat sinking off Agathonisi in which sixteen people lost their lives. On 16 March sixteen people, including at least five children, drowned when the small boat they on capsized in the Aegean Sea. The only three survivors raise serious allegations against the authorities. Relatives of those lost at sea- including an Afghan mother who lost her two sons gather at Syntagma square in Athens to protest and demand responsibilities about the incident, as the Greek Coast Guard ignored the emergency calls.

Athens, Greece, 04 April 2018.

From the Dawn of the Greks blog, 12 November 2019:

The repression wave in Athens continues…

Clashes between students and riot police erupted in the Economic University AOSEE in downtown Athens yesterday September 11th. Dozens of students entered the premises of the institution in order to protest the Senate decision to close the University for a week “deliberately and for no reason”, as they say. …

Today, November 12th, the riot police in Athens evacuated one more squat in the center of Athens at Bouboulinas street, where 138 refugees and migrants were living. The situation with the repression wave of the new [right-wing] government remains out of control. Many squats and social spaces in Athens have been evacuated already. Mainly the victims are migrants and refugees.

From the Keep Talking Greece site, 11 November 2019:

Greek gov’t brings back Blasphemy Laws, penalty up to 2 years in prison

The conservative Greek government brings back the Blasphemy Laws the previous government SYRIZA had abolished less than six months ago. Violating the blasphemy laws could send those insulting God and the Greek Orthodox Church up to two years in prison.

GREECE will shut down overcrowded refugee camps on islands and replace them with tight-security holding facilities, officials announced today: here.

Right-wing Greek government attacks refugees


Refugees in Greece, AFP photo

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Greece votes on stricter asylum law, aid organizations are worried

Today, a bill is being discussed in the Greek parliament with rigorous changes to the asylum law. That will be voted on tonight, because the centre-right government of Prime Minister Mitsotakis wants to introduce these new, harsher rules as quickly as possible.

The government hopes that this will make it easier to deport migrants … Athens is struggling with considerable backlogs in the asylum procedure and with the largest influx of refugees and migrants from Turkey since 2016. Nearly 44,000 people entered Greece via the sea this year.

Criticism

More and more international organizations and many Greek aid organizations are now criticizing the government plans. Eg, the UN refugee organization UNHCR, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are concerned. “The proposed changes endanger people who need international protection,” said Philip Leclerc, UNHCR representative in Greece.

According to Human Rights Watch, numerous procedural changes are being implemented that impede access to a fair asylum process and affect the right to appeal. “It is a clear attempt to increase the number of deportations in the light of the recent increase in asylum seekers,” said Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Eva Cosse.

The organizations are calling on the bill not to be hurried through parliament and to adjust the law.

Harsher policy

It seems that the government is not sensitive to that. …

The conservative government has already indicated that it wants to pursue a tougher policy when it took office in July. The long asylum procedure must be streamlined and asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal remedies must be returned to Turkey or to the country of origin.

Athens also constantly advocates a fair redistribution of refugees within the European Union. Prime Minister Mitsotakis said again at a conference yesterday that Greece cannot handle the problem alone.

Most refugees don’t really want to get asylum in Greece. They want to travel on to other countries where they can meet with relatives or friends; and where there is not as much economic ruin and unemployment as in Greece, hit by European Union austerity. However, razor wire and other European Union anti-refugee policies are stopping refugees’ intended travel to the north-west.

Crisis on islands

In the meantime, the situation on the Greek islands where there are refugee camps (Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos) is becoming increasingly acute. There are now more than 30,000 refugees on the islands and all camps are overcrowded. There are also major problems with housing, medical care, hygiene and safety.

The Greek asylum system is overloaded. Asylum seekers arriving on islands are told that their first appointment with the asylum service will be only in 2021 or 2022. According to the deal the EU concluded with Turkey in 2016, only vulnerable groups such as minors, the elderly and the sick are allowed to leave the islands.

“Strict deadlines, more rules and more requirements for the documents that refugees must submit in the procedures are no solution,” says lawyer Maria Papamina of the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR). The organization therefore fears that refugees, and certainly the most vulnerable groups, will have no chance of asylum or appeal with the new rules. The GCR argues for better access and more personnel in the asylum service and adequate legal assistance.

‘European Union anti-refugee policy is racist’


The remains of an inflatable rubber dinghy off Libya that was carrying 15 people, all of whom were rescued by rescue ship Open Arms

By Ben Cowles in Britain:

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

EU accused of ‘institutional racism’ in the way it handles Mediterranean rescues

‘If white Europeans had been on the boat, they probably wouldn’t have had to wait so long’, NGO says after EU nations ignored the boat’s distress call

THE European Union was accused of institutional racism for the way it handles rescues in the Mediterranean today after calls about another refugee boat in distress went unanswered.

German charity Sea Watch discovered an inflatable boat with 15 people on board adrift in the Mediterranean yesterday from its reconnaissance plane, Moonbird.

“Our crew accompanied the boat for hours and tried to inform the merchant ship Vos-Aphrodite, only a few miles away, about the acute sea emergency, and to coordinate a rescue”, Sea Watch tweeted yesterday afternoon.

“Several contacts failed and none of the ships in the vicinity attempted to rescue [the people].

“We received information from the so-called Libyan Coastguard that their ships would remain in port due to ‘bad weather’. We’ll search for the boat tomorrow, with the sad expectation that EU authorities are once again responsible for the death of people by refraining from assistance.”

Fortunately the Spanish NGO migrant rescue ship Open Arms was in the area and tweeted today that it had found and rescued the 15 people on board.

Open Arms said the refugees‘ dinghy was taking on water and was about to sink. “15 people: six men, two women, two children and five minors. Everyone is safe,” the charity tweeted this afternoon.

Both Sea Watch and Open Arms condemned the EU’s inaction as well as its relationship and funding of the Libyan Coastguard.

“If Libya is not a safe place and its ‘coastguards’ do not go out to rescue lives in danger if there is bad weather, they should stop calling themselves coastguards”, the charity’s founder Oscar Camps tweeted yesterday.

Sea Watch said: “A Libyan Coastguard that doesn’t send a boat for weather reasons; merchant ships who refuse any communication with our [search and rescue] reconnaissance aircraft Moonbird and official maritime rescue co-ordination centres who value formal responsibilities more than human lives.

“If white Europeans had been on the boat, they probably wouldn’t have had to wait so long. That is institutional racism. Fortunately, our crew was able to find the small rubber dinghy again this morning and co-ordinate a rescue with our friends from Open Arms.”

Meanwhile the Alan Kurdi and the Ocean Viking — civil refugee rescue ships operated by German charity Sea Eye and French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) respectively — were today finally given permission to disembark the refugees they rescued in the Mediterranean in the past two weeks.

The Alan Kurdi rescued 91 people in Libyan waters on Saturday as armed, Libyan-flagged speedboats attempted to disrupt the operation by firing bullets into the air and the sea.

The Sea Eye’s chairman Gorden Isler said Berlin’s silence to the armed attack on the Alan Kurdi was deafening. “If we were a merchant ship and had transported diesel engines or crude oil, then there would certainly be reactions from the federal ministries,” he tweeted.

The Ocean Viking rescued 104 people on October 18 and has since spent 11 days at sea with nowhere to go and no word from Europe.

Michael Fark, MSF head of mission for Libya and Mediterranean, said the charity was relieved France, Germany, and Italy finally agreed to relocate all of the 104 survivors on board the Ocean Viking, and the 90 people on board the Alan Kurdi.

“These prolonged, inhumane standoffs must not continue. It is unacceptable to strand people at sea, waiting days and weeks while European states debate whether and how to fulfil their humanitarian and legal obligations.

“It’s disappointing that only three states were part of this solution. All European states must live up to their principles.

“This means agreeing on the implementation of a predictable and humane disembarkation mechanism for everyone rescued at sea, that also shares responsibility, easing the burden on coastal states.”

European inaction condemned as NGOs rescue over 100 people in the Mediterranean: here.

Refugees in trouble, Greece, Libya


African refugees are rescued from a dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea

From daily News Line in Britain:

Lesbos: epicentre of refugee crisis

12th October 2019

WARS in Syria and Afghanistan are driving refugees through Turkey as they make their way to Greece. Many land on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is now an epicentre of the country’s migrant crisis.

It’s a dangerous journey – but one made slightly easier by Refugee Rescue, the last remaining humanitarian rescue boat in the area. 16,000 refugees have fled to a Greek island this year.

With a crackdown on refugees in Turkey, and tough immigration policies elsewhere in Europe, the number of people fleeing to Lesbos by sea has soared to more than 16,000 this year, according to the UN.

That’s the biggest influx since 2016. As the only NGO left in Lesbos with a rescue boat, the group is working overtime, all the time.

‘We are tired, we are tired,’ said Giannis Skenderoglou, a crew coordinator for the group. ‘But that, that’s our job.’

Refugee Rescue said: ‘Refugee Rescue is a grassroots NGO operating a skilled Search and Rescue (SAR) team on the North Shore of Lesbos, Greece. Our boat crew and rescue vessel “Mo Chara” are on call 24 hours per day, ready to assist those in distress at sea.

‘Onshore, our land teams man spotting operations that keep watch along the treacherous coastline, and work alongside partners to provide emergency relief for those who have just arrived.

‘Refugee Rescue was founded in response to inadequate SAR infrastructure in 2015 when thousands of people were arriving to the island by boat, having been displaced by war, conflict and persecution.

‘Dinghies often directly navigate towards dangerous rocks or shallows that can easily break the floor of these flimsy rubber boats, causing them to sink or capsize.

‘Smugglers abandon groups of refugees on rocks and inaccessible beaches. Many boats also land on treacherous rocks and people are then stranded in locations that are difficult to reach. There is no cliff rescue here, no helicopter to come and help them, and people are often impossible to reach from land.

‘Hundreds have already lost their lives and people are still crossing the perilous stretch of water between Turkey and Lesbos every day. As long as people are denied safe passage to Europe, they will continue risking their lives unnecessarily, forced to take what is now one of the world’s most dangerous migratory routes in search of refuge.

‘By offering a consistent and skilled emergency response along this treacherous coastline, we seek to make this journey a little less deadly, with the hope of stopping any more lives being needlessly lost to The Aegean.’

Meanwhile, Médécins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) issued its own statement on Libyan refugees and migrants.

MSF said: ‘MSF is currently working to provide medical help to people trapped in appalling conditions in Libyan detention centres.

‘People are detained simply because of their migration status in overcrowded conditions, with a lack of access to sufficient food, water or medical treatment.

‘A recent assessment of just one of these centres found alarming levels of malnutrition, with some people held in a room so small there was no space to lie down. Worse still, one third of the people detained indefinitely in this centre were children.

‘But in recent days, things have got even worse. Fighting in and around Libya’s capital Tripoli led directly to the deaths of 40 vulnerable migrants and refugees after a detention centre in Tripoli was hit by an airstrike on 2 July.

‘Trapped in these centres, and at severe risk of being caught in the crossfire, migrants and refugees are unable to flee the fighting and are suffering from increased disruption to food and other supplies – some report not having eaten for days.’

Just seven of the 28 EU member nations agreed to launch a new system to help those rescued in the Mediterranean. A large majority of European Union member countries have refused to back a plan to quickly get migrants off boats in the Mediterranean Sea and distribute them among willing EU partners.

At a meeting of EU interior ministers, only Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal offered to take part in the ‘fast-track’ plan drawn up by Germany, France, Italy and Malta, which would screen migrants, relocate asylum seekers and return people who do not apply or qualify for asylum, all within four weeks.

‘We were seven yesterday, seven this morning and seven this evening. So things haven’t changed much,’ said a downbeat Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s minister responsible for migration. ‘Why us, and why no one else?’

For more than a year, humanitarian ships that have picked up migrants from Libya in unseaworthy boats were blocked from docking or disembarking passengers in Italy or Malta. Italy’s former anti-migrant interior minister even threatened to jail the crews of charity-run rescue ships.

The stance taken by the two countries resulted in standoffs that kept rescued migrants at sea for weeks until other EU nations pledged to take at least some of the people seeking safety or better lives in Europe.

Tuesday’s meeting in Luxembourg had been meant to gauge enthusiasm for the temporary plan, in which countries would make ‘pre-declared pledges’ on how many asylum seekers they would accept. Details of the scheme are sketchy, but it would operate for at least six months, unless migrant arrivals increase dramatically.

Earlier, France’s European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin, had claimed that several countries were willing to accept asylum seekers.

‘I think there are around ten countries that are ready to play the game. Perhaps others,’ she told reporters. ‘We are going to be able to say that when a boat arrives, we know who to call and that there are countries ready to send teams in.’

But Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said that those who agreed to take part ‘are those three or four states that had already said they were available, like Luxembourg and Ireland.’ She said she hoped that more EU partners would sign on by the end of the year.

Asselborn said that … those opposed to migrant-sharing quotas in the past – countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – ‘remain against it’.

Well over a million migrants arrived in the EU in 2015, most of them refugees from countries at war like Syria or Iraq, sparking one of Europe’s biggest political crises as nations bickered over who should take responsibility for them and how much others should be forced to help.

New arrivals have now dropped to their lowest levels in about seven years, particularly between Libya and Italy, but EU countries are still unable to agree on the best way forward, and far-right and anti-migrant parties have taken advantage of the confusion.

Saving refugees from drowning, rescuer interviewed


Hannah Wallace Bowman, communications manager on board the Ocean Viking (right)

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.”

A lone life jacket floats in the Mediterranean (Pic: Hannah Wallace Bowman)

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.”

Members of the Maltese Armed Forces take a group of migrants to a Maltese military ship in the Mediterranean Sea

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?”

Children wave at a boat from aboard the Ocean Viking as it reaches the port of Messina, Italy

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.