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‘It shouldn’t be civil society versus European governments’

SOS Mediterranee's DAVID STARKE tells the Star how EU member states have abandoned their commitments to international maritime and refugee laws when it comes to rescues carried out by the civil rescue fleet

THE Ocean Viking, a refugee rescue ship operated jointly by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), saved the lives of 60 people from a watery grave in the Mediterranean last week. 

The European Union — having ignored the refugees’ initial distress calls as they attempted to escape war-torn Libya in an unseaworthy boat on the evening of November 28 — refused to provide the Ocean Viking with a port of safety. 

It wasn’t until Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando called on Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte to end the five-day standoff on Twitter that the ship was allowed to dock. 

“It's interesting to see how, in a short space of time, respect for international maritime law has completely eroded,” says David Starke, general director of the migrant rescue charity SOS Mediterranee Germany, speaking to me a few days before this latest mission. 

“At the moment, it's completely normal that we are not allowed to access ports, which was unheard of before,” Starke tells me. 

SOS Mediterranee and MSF originally began operating refugee rescue missions in the central Mediterranean onboard the Aquarius. But after a series of legal threats from EU member states, the charities were forced to abandon it. 

“In 2016-7 when we started operations, we were celebrated as heroes. The Aquarius rescued nearly 30,000 people,” Starke says. 

“But then in June 2018, the escalations started. We were the first ship to be refused access to harbours in Italy. We had to bring the rescued all the way from Italy to Valencia. That was the first really significant standoff, which by now has become the norm.

“Later we had the so-called ‘trash-gate’. The prosecutor in Catania accused us of not properly taking care of the trash, meaning the clothes of the refugees and their things. He accused us of not properly disposing of these things. It was completely constructed.”

In November 2018, while the Aquarius was docked in Marseilles, the Panamanian government — under pressure from Italy — withdrew its flag from the ship. 

“You cannot sail without a flag,” Starke explains. “It's like having a car without a licence plate. If you don't have a flag, ports won't let you in. 

“We tried Switzerland, Germany and France. These would have been robust flags — meaning that if there was political pressure then they would not give in so easily to the Italian government. But none of the governments granted them to us. 

“So the Aquarius was stuck in a port without a flag and unable to leave. And this was the point when we had to give up.”

The so-called “migrant crisis” — which began in 2015 following the breakout of the Libyan civil war —  only got worse in the months the Aquarius was out of the water. 

More NGOs joined the civil refugee rescue fleet but in April this year, the EU (with its endless resources and naval equipment) withdrew all of its rescue ships from the Mediterranean. 

SOS Mediterranee and MSF returned to the Mediterranean with the Ocean Viking in August and has since been on four missions, saving the lives of at least 1,200 people. 

Most of the Ocean Viking’s missions have involved weeks-long standoffs with Italy and Malta, while being completely ignored by other EU states, who squabble over the numbers of refugees they are willing to take in while the ship remains at sea with dwindling supplies and nowhere to go. 

“It's maritime law to rescue people in distress at sea. All we do is follow existing laws. And according to those laws, a rescue is only completed once the rescued have reached land: once they're put in a port of safety. 

“At the moment, it is European countries that have the nearest port of safety to our rescues and the only countries that can be considered safe.  

“The fact is our work is hampered by European governments.”

As well as abandoning their rescue ships, the EU has also made a terrible situation worse by funding and equipping the Libyan Coastguard

“As of today there are about 8,500 people who have been pushed back by the Libyan Coastguard in 2019. 

“Technically speaking, according to the Geneva Refugee Convention, this is refoulement. They have been brought back to a country where they are not safe, where they are put back in detention, tortured, sold into slavery and face many other human-rights abuses. 

“This is simply against the law.  

“For SOS Mediterranee, we have to co-ordinate with the Libyan Coastguard. According to international law if we rescue people in the Libyan search-and-rescue zone, we have to coordinate our actions with them, which we do. However, they often do not respond to calls, to emails.

“So the requirements which national rescue-coordination centres should have are not in place in Libya.”

On the occasions when the Libyan Coastguard does respond to the Ocean Viking, they ask the crew to bring the rescued backed to the country they risked their lives trying to escape. 

“According to protocol, it's actually us who has to request Libya assign us a port of safety.  Sometimes they tell us to go to Tripoli and drop off the people there. 

“We usually say thank you very much and decline because, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency,  and Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Libya is not safe.” 

Despite abiding by refugee and maritime law, it is often the Ocean Viking’s crew (and the entire civil refugee rescue fleet in general) that are portrayed as the criminals or as human traffickers. 

“All we do is save people's lives. We are human-rights defenders. However, if you talk to to some politicians, if you read some newspapers, if you read some of the nasty emails we receive, they say we smuggle people. They say we’re criminals.

“It breaks my heart. It really makes me wonder how far we’ve come as a society when we as an NGO get criminalised for the actions we do.

“We are filling the gap for the European Union. They have failed to send out rescue missions in the Mediterranean, leaving people to drown, day in and day out.  

“It’s civil society that is making sure these vessels are out at sea. It shouldn't be like this. It shouldn’t be civil society versus the government. But at this very moment, it is.”

Despite the EU’s willingness to allow refugees escaping Libya to die crossing the world’s deadliest border and the demonisation of those trying to prevent that, Starke says that he is optimistic.  

“I’m optimistic the situation will change,  simply because it has to change. 

“This is Europe. We have learnt some very very difficult lessons in the past. We have human rights and I think we know that we have to change this disgraceful situation.  

“Technically speaking, it is possible that nobody ever needs to drown in the Mediterranean. Europe has the resources we need to deal with this.

“Please speak up to your politicians. Talk to your friends about what's happening. We need civil society. We need many, many voices so that legal decision makers know what's happening. 

“We do not accept any money from European governments. We need people like you, like me, our parents, and our friends to donate money to run our vessel. 

“Christmas is coming up so why not donate to us so that we can keep saving lives?” 

David Starke is general director of SOS Mediterranee Germany. Ben Cowles is the Star’s web editor and podcast co-host of Podaganda.

Follow SOS Mediterranee and Ben Cowles on Twitter via @SOSMedIntl and @Cowlesz

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