Amid the heightened European political discourse on curbing migrant sea crossings, citizens aboard converted fishing vessels have stepped into the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea, performing the indispensable task of rescuing those who face the imminent threat of drowning.
Imagine a rubber raft overloaded to the brink of sinking. A crowd of adults, children, and infants, huddled together, shivering in fear. Their engine sputters to a halt in the chilling darkness. Waves crash over the tiny vessel, the shore is unseen and the water level within the boat is on the rise. It seems as if their perilous journey has come to a tragic end. Then, out of nowhere, a glimmer of hope appears – a small light drawing near, followed by an eruption of activity: the throw of life jackets, the cries of instructions, and the launch of rescue ladders. A welcoming haven arrives to offer a chance of safety and survival.
As the first breezes of spring stir the air, the numbers of refugees attempting to infiltrate the sturdy walls of ‘Fortress Europe’ surge. Trafficking groups, exploiting the desperation of these individuals, cram them into fragile and unfit boats.
The German charity Sea-Watch and its band of volunteers have, since 2014, pulled approximately 45,000 migrants from the treacherous waters of the central Mediterranean. However, they stand alongside other civil search and rescue teams operating in the English Channel and the Aegean Sea as a last line of defense, compensating for the overstretched and often indifferent coast guards and other official agencies.
“It’s incumbent upon the European Union to arrive at a collective solution,” implores Oliver Kulikowski, a spokesperson for Sea-Watch. With the absence of a joint effort, the task of sea rescues falls primarily on individual states, which are invariably overwhelmed.
Operating from the Italian island of Lampedusa, Sea-Watch conducts voluntary air-surveillance to alert emergency services to migrant boats in distress. In addition, the charity maintains its own rescue vessels. Starting with a century-old refitted fishing trawler, Sea-Watch has gradually upgraded its fleet, with the latest additions including the Sea-Watch 5, a large ship with ample space for hundreds of migrants, and the Aurora, a specially designed fast ‘sea ambulance’.
In sea rescues, time is of the essence. Slow-moving ships could take over half a day to reach a distressed boat even in the central region of the Mediterranean. Civil rescue services operate on a fundamental principle: if a person’s life is in danger, it is imperative to help, regardless of their status.
The humanitarian responsibility does not rest solely on Sea-Watch’s shoulders; other groups like Sea-Eye, SOS Humanity, SOS Mediterranee, Open Arms, Mission Lifeline, Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario, Louise Michel, and Life Support have all risen to the occasion, tirelessly working in the Mediterranean.
However, no one is under the illusion that rescue efforts provide a final solution to the crisis. In a perfect world, governments would discourage migrants from embarking on these perilous journeys and provide assistance when disasters strike. Until then, these civil society groups stand ready to step in and do what they can.
Unfortunately, volunteer rescue services are frequently hampered by political and bureaucratic interference, from denial of port entry to the impounding of their vessels. Moreover, they find themselves unjustly criminalized for simply upholding international laws that governments themselves often fail to observe.
Despite these challenges, the tireless work of organizations like Sea-Watch ensures that migrants have a fighting chance to survive their perilous journeys. These civilian-run rescue services, taking to the seas to save lives, shine as beacons of hope in the midst of a crisis that continues to test the limits of human resilience and kindness. Their work is more than a narrative of survival; it is a testament to the boundless human spirit, a reminder that in the face of adversity, there are always those who will step forward to lend a helping hand.