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‘Europe wanted to demoralise us, to keep us away, to make sure we wouldn't save any more migrants’

Ben Cowles speaks to FABIAN HEINZ, volunteer activist aboard the migrant rescue boat Europe turned its back on

“IN THE beginning the biggest problem was the cold because there weren’t enough clothes or enough blankets,” Fabian Heinz says describing the conditions on board an NGO ship that Europe refused to give port for 10 days after it rescued 64 migrants off the Libyan coast on April 3.

“We also didn’t know what they could eat. We tried serving them porridge but some of them had to puke if they ate it. Some didn’t eat at all. We had to learn how to treat them and how to deal with the limited amount of things on board.

“Later on the biggest problem was psychological. They were frustrated and confused and kept asking: ‘What are we waiting for?’, ‘Are we going back to Tripoli?’, ‘Will Europe let us in?’”

Heinz co-runs Boxfish Film, a production company in central Germany. The German NGO Sea-Eye invited him to film a rescue operation on board their ship the Alan Kurdi, named after the small Syrian Kurdish boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015.

Europe was briefly caught up in a wave of compassion after photos of Kurdi’s body lying face down in the surf were circulated. For a moment even Britain’s corporate media were concerned for the refugees desperately seeking safety in the continent largely response for the bloodshed and economic devastation in their own countries.

Alas, instead of helping these people reach Europe safely and tackling the root causes that would make a person risk not only their own lives but also their family’s on reaching the continent, the EU instead actively made their journeys harder and struck deals with Turkey’s tyrannical regime and the Libyan coastguard.

“I have never seen anything like that,” Heinz says when describing the moment he spotted the migrant’s dinghy.

“Conditions on the boat were shitty, I have no other word for it.

“There were 64 people on it. The engine broke down a couple of times for them and they tried to fiddle around with it, so the top was off and you could see all the wires, the fuel tank, the belt and all that stuff.

“It was absolutely clear we had to get them off that boat.

“The International Law of the Sea says if you rescue someone, then you should go to the first safe harbour. And that usually means the nearest coast.

“But for us the nearest port was Tripoli, which is not safe. So the closest safe harbour was Lampedusa in Italy.”

Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had other plans, however. The alt-right poster boy said: “The ship is German property, under a German flag, with Germans [on board]. Therefore, Germany must take care of it too,” perhaps forgetting that the central European country does not reach the Mediterranean sea.  

Heinz says the Sea-Eye crew tried to get the Italian government to take in a family that was on board but it would only accept the mother and child.

“The father would have ended up in Malta or some other place and they wouldn’t see each other for weeks, maybe never,” he says.

“So we didn’t get people off the boat there. The door to Italy was closed. So the next harbour was Malta, where we had to wait.”

While the European Union bickered over who should take these people in, the Sea-Eye crew were essentially left at sea. The Alan Kurdi was left to fend for itself for ten days. Conditions on board were only getting worse.

“On good days when the water was calm and there was no rain, the refugees were on deck in the open. We had a plastic sheet on top to shield them at least a little bit from the wind and the rain.

“We encouraged them to stay outside in those conditions because it’s better for their health, diseases don’t spread as easily and it’s also better for the operation of the ship.

“We had a toilet on deck. But it was just a toilet seat with a tube attached that you had to use a bucket to flush.

“For the first few days, they were quite weak. And most of them were sleeping all day and puking because of seasickness.

“On the third day, they were starting to get active and standing up.

“It was becoming easier but  at the same time much harder. When they were sick, the refugees didn’t spend much time wondering why they are waiting, if there were enough supplies, whether the boat is safe, and all that stuff.

“For us it was quite stressful because there was a lot to do. But for them it was quite boring and confusing.

“It was horrible living there because there were way too many people on the vessel.

“For me personally, the most stressful part of it all was the question I got everyday a couple of times: ‘What are we waiting for?’

“I didn’t know how to explain it to them because I didn’t fully understand it myself. As far as I understood it, Europe just wanted to keep us unhappy, unwell and stressed.

“Europe wanted us to stay there and to have problems. They knew we couldn’t save any more people if we were already over capacity. They just wanted to demoralise us to make sure we wouldn’t do it again.

“That’s the twisted part; everything that happened to us was completely against everything I understood about Europe. It did not care about these people.”

Had Heinz rescued me from a dinghy off the coast of Libya, then surely Malta, Italy and the rest of the EU would not have expected Sea-Eye to drop me off in Tripoli.

“Absolutely,” he replies.   

“The interesting thing is we disembarked the refugees in Malta. We waited there for ten days and afterwards headed in the direction of Spain and our engine broke down.

“Ten minutes after the engine cut, Italy called us asking if we had a problem, if we needed rescuing.

“If there are European, or white people in general, in trouble in the sea, you’ll get all the help you could ever need. But for African people it’s completely different; nobody cares.”

Before the trip, Heinz says he didn’t have a strong opinion on the European Union’s handling of the migrant crisis.  

“After being in the boat, I have experienced Europe in a different way,” he says.  

“My opinion was that it was a good cause to save people, but I had no opinion about immigration, or if what Sea Eye is doing is a ‘pull factor’ or not. I never thought about what happens to the people when they come to Europe.

“As far as I’ve experienced Europe, you have complete support and freedom. Let me put it this way: at an airport the normal thing for a European is that you pass through immigration in seconds.

“But I never experienced Europe like a system that doesn’t want to help people or is against people. Except on that trip. It was quite a new feeling for me to see Europe actively harm people by forcing them to sleep in the open.”

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