by Federica Veccari

Every day thousands of people, especially from North African countries, undertake long and painful journeys to escape from war, violence, starvation, in situations of such extreme poverty that we can hardly imagine. Many of these people lose their lives during the journey, which often takes place on small makeshift boats and heads for the ports of southern Europe. The lucky ones who manage to be recovered are extremely shocked and uncertain about their future. Which country will host them? How will they survive? When will they be able to see their families again?

European governments have been talking for years about a “migrant/refugees emergency”, but they do not seem to be able to manage the phenomenon. By the way, is it really an emergency? Not really. It is rather a situation that has lasted for decades and has been caused by several factors, including wars between nations and corporations to appropriate the natural resources of which these countries are rich (oil, gas, diamonds, etc.). Instead of taking responsibility for its own actions, and doing everything it can to give these people a dignified life, Europe turns its head and lets these people dispersing into the waters of the Mediterranean without anyone (or almost anyone) trying to save them.

At the moment, only a few NGOs are involved in recovering refugees, offering them first aid and leaving them at the first safe harbour. Among these, there is Sea-Watch, whose ships flying the Dutch flag, have been subjected to several sudden and unjustified checks, with the threat of suspending its rescue activities.

In fact, on one hand, the Dutch government is “concerned” about the safety of shipwrecked people, but on the other hand, officials have decided to block Sea-Watch 3. The paradoxes of politics. On April 5th, we have met Anne, activist of the organisation, asking her help to shed light on the latest updates.

 

Can you explain to us the reasons of the discussion between Sea-Watch and the Dutch government?

Yes. The last Monday, the minister has announced with immediate effect a policy change which effectively blocks our ship to show up for rescue operations, or to sail out anyway. Officially, a policy change as well as a law is aimed to everyone and can’t be target on one specific company or organisation or individual. However, reading this new policy, it’s clear that it’s very specified and only applicable to Sea-Watch 3 at the moment. In fact, the modification refers to organisations with idealistic motivations like NGOs, whose sail boats are registered in the Netherlands as special crafts working to rescue migrants. Right now there’s only one ship with this prerogative, that is Sea-Watch 3. So this new measure really targets us. In addition, it was carried out in a hurry. Last Monday the proposal was presented to the parliament, on Tuesday it was officially declared and on Wedsnday it was in effect, without any transition period whatsoever.

Why did the government make this sudden decision?

Indeed, the will of the minister was quite clear in September, when she announced that there would be a policy change for ships registered as special crafts in the Netherlands. At that moment, she said that the regulation would have been in effect for any new registrations, but for the existing ones she would have started a dialogue and found a solution. So Sea-Watch 3, together with other 4 organisations, got in fight by the ministry, that couldn’t explain yet which kind of rules this new policy would have implied. At the beginning, however, the ministry had declared its interest in hearing our opinion. So there was some kind of an exchange. But last January there was another meeting, in which the minister was still not sure what to do, asking us to give our inputs. Therefore we asked for a transition period until (at least) the end of 2019. But, three weeks ago, we got a call from the ministry informing us about this ”special code” they were thinking about, and asking our opinion about it. We basically said, like the other NGOs, that we are not opposing a changing rules, but the process behind it. We are poling for a proper legislative procedure which is fair to everyone and can be also tested in precence of the parliament. If the minister changes her mind in a few weeks, she can change the policy, and the next minister, if he/she feels differently, can change it in turn. Somehow the minister decided, over the last couple of weeks, to still work on a detailed plan and a transition period of the other 4 organisations, but not for Sea-Watch. We are very unhappy about it for several reasons: obviously because the fact that there’s no transition period means that we are effectively booked, but especially because this decision is very arbitrary. We need to have a proper legislative procedure and then, whatever outcome, we’ll do that. The minister declares to be concerned about safey but we don’t share her concerns, because we are the ones that take safety seriously. We are happy to make an agreement about it and put it on paper but, in the meantime, she has to work on the legacy of the process.

Is there any other rescue ship in the Mediterranean at the moment?

There is currently one ship operational, called Alan Kurdi. You would probably remember that terrible but iconic picture of that 3 years old little boy who was washed ashore in 2015. The ship was named after that kid. Three days ago it rescued 64 people, and now we are waiting to see which countries will take them up.

What are your next moves?

It’s a very new situtation we have to face. We are discussing on what to do, looking into all the possibilities. We are in contact with lawyers to see if we can actually legally challenge not necessarly the outcome, but the real procedure, since the most important point for us is its arbitrariness. In the meantime we’re considering how to resume the rescue operations as soon as possible. This remains our main aim: saving lives.

Do you consider your form of activism to be a thing of the past?

No. The fact there there is so much pressure from many different governments proves that we are putting the finger in the right place. We are exactly doing what we need to do. It’s a shame that now we and the other NGOs put all our energy in fighting predictible rules. That’s kind of bullshit. Still, I think that trying to be operational again as soon as possible is super necessary and indeed the resistence we need shows that we are needed. It just has to continue.

What’s the real aim of the European governments?

It’s very clear. The last June there was a migration summit. The countries could not agree on many things, but they could agree on this: closing the Central Mediterrean routes, with whatever it means. They don’t want to see any boats anymore, and this explains why the Dutch prime minister walked out saying to the press ”From now on, we will look into the registration”. This really points out that their ”concern” about safety is a complete bullshit, it’s all related to migration, and stopping migration, and getting away from Dutch responsabilities. I have no doubt about it at all.

A slightly more personal question: how do you feel when you’re there, in the middle of the sea?

It can be a very difficult experience. Sometimes you are on board for a long time and nothing happens, and this can be very boring, as well as annoying because of the sea sickness. Most of time is dedicated to make the ship running and working 24 hours per day, and this is not certainly an easy job. Moreover, even if the rescue operation goes well, it can be very rewarding but, at the same time, is obviously horrible. By definition the shipwreked are in a bad position and even if everything goes well, they are still traumatised. Often it seems people are drowning in front of our eyes because you can’t rescue 100 people at the same time. I have seen badly wounded people, people drowing, bodies floating on the water.

Has anything changed since the first rescue operations?

We began 5 years ago and at the time we were just people who wanted to do something concrete. Since then, we have grown a lot professionally. I have been on board 6 times in the last 2 years and I think there’s certainly a learning curve that always allows you to improve. Anyway, on our side, operations didn’t really change. What really did change is the context in which we operate. There used to be a super close cooperation with the Italian coastguard. They were actively calling us, alerting us when there was a ship in stress and in which direction, asking us to go to retrieve it or to help in other ways. Since a few months, there is no cooperation anymore. If now we reach out to the Embassy of Rome (indeed, to any Embassy) they just say it’s not their problem and we need to talk to someone else. I think the recent standoff of January really shows what has changed in the current context, and that’s not about our way of operating. We have always worked in the same way, working to save people by bringing them to safety in the closest safe port. We’re obliged to rescue people. It’s our mission.