When we set out on our first rescue mission in the central Mediterranean in June 2015, no one would have guessed what kind of odyssey we would face. From political blockades in Germany, Italy, Malta and the Netherlands, to numerous confrontations with an alleged Libyan coast guard. At times, weeks of fighting took place for the safe landing of survivors, and then a global pandemic, which made our work considerably more difficult.
While next to nothing could be relied upon from the political side, our ships still maneuvered us safely through every rough sea. Through these ships, we were able to support around 45,000 on their way to safer lives in the midst of the unending disaster of European border exclusion policies.
As we achieved in 2017 with our aerial reconnaissance mission Airborne and more recently with our 14-meter rescue ship Aurora, in the coming months we intend to break new operational ground again. The successful handover of Sea-Watch 4 to SOS Humanity and the upcoming retirement of Sea-Watch 3 have given us the space to open a new chapter in our association’s history. However, before we break the big news, let’s take a look back together – at seven and a half years, five ships and three aircraft.
#SafePassage – Sea-Watch 1 & 2
In 2015, Sea-Watch 1’s first voyage from Lampedusa towards the deadly European border strip off the coast of Libya marked the beginning of a movement. Doctors Without Borders set sail shortly after us with their vessel Dignity 1, and just one year later, the civilian rescue fleet had grown to 13 vessels, assisting 46,796 people on their way north. In parallel, our speedboat operation on the Greek island of Lesbos, at the end of the long summer of migration, was able to secure and escort ashore some 4,000 refugees.
However, as the summer of 2015 and its culture of welcome came to an end, there was still no salvation in sight on the central Mediterranean. Our original plan to act as a watchful eye for prompting greater intervention by European authorities did not work out. For although we alerted the Italian Coast Guard and EU military craft to numerous boats, their capacity was nowhere near high enough to rescue them all. The 100-year-old fishing cutter Sea-Watch 1, then, was traded for the much larger and more capable Sea-Watch 2.
And this happened just in time. From 2016 onwards, the EU’s ‘humanitarian border management’ gradually gave way to organized inhumanity – the military as well as the European border protection agency Frontex withdrew from rescuing people in order to instead, as an Italian legal scholar later noted, “give the Libyan coast guard the opportunity to push back migrants and to chase and intimidate NGO ships.” And indeed, such events began to take place: In April 2016, armed militias boarded the <em>Sea-Watch 2</em> and threatened the crew. Only a few weeks later, they threatened the ship again, crossing its bow at high speed. But our crews had already seen and experienced too much to be defeated. We carried on rescuing, even as in 2017, right-wing politicians started their despicable crusade against civilian rescue at sea.
Only one day after the Sea-Watch 1 set sail in 2015, another ship set off from Malta into the central Mediterranean Sea – the Dignity 1. For two years, this ship sailed on behalf of the Spanish contingent of Doctors Without Borders, rescuing thousands of people from distress at sea. Then in mid-2017 it was taken over by us, becoming the Sea-Watch 3. Already the first Sea-Watch 3 mission led ship and crew into our most harrowing confrontation with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard – to this day we cannot say for sure how many people died in the brutal assault by the patrol boat Ras Jadir on November 6, 2017.
Trigger Warning! Violence
Barely half a year later, the coordinated shutdown of the civilian rescue fleet by EU authorities had started. After the right-wing Italian Interior Minister declared Italy’s ports closed for the first time and the Netherlands revoked flags from three rescue ships, Malta abruptly detained us in its Grand Harbour for almost four months without any trial or legal basis.
The island nation then forced us to “loiter” (quotation from Maltese Coast Guard) off its coast for 19 days with 32 rescued people on board, an incident which was followed by other similar blockades and seizures in Italy. The climax came at the end of June 2019 when a new “security decree” issued by said Italian Minister of the Interior was implemented to criminalize unauthorized entry into Italian territorial waters at the very moment when the Sea-Watch 3 was approaching those same territorial waters with 52 survivors on board. Our captain though was not impressed by this, bringing the rescued people safely ashore despite strong resistance from the authorities, and consequently also being given justification for doing so from several levels of the Italian judicial system.
Another six months of seizure, which finally had to be terminated via a court decision, were then followed by two successful missions, each of which brought about so-called “port state controls” ending in detentions by the authorities due to alleged technical deficiencies. Then came the Corona pandemic in 2020, which doubled our workload practically overnight. Through stringent safety precautions however, we still managed to undertake numerous successful rescue missions with the Sea-Watch 3. Now, though, the longest-serving ship in the civil fleet is approaching its retirement. The last seven years have left their mark on the steel of the Sea-Watch 3, which was originally cast back in 1973. Even though we are still very attached to our grande dame, it is now time to take the burden of fighting for thousands of lives off her shoulders.
Like perhaps no other ship, the Sea-Watch 4 embodies the spirit of the solidarity in civilian sea rescue. Initiated and co-financed by the civil society alliance United 4 Rescue, it first set course for the central Mediterranean in the middle of the dramatic first summer of the Corona pandemic. The message was clear: the newfound societal solidarity must not stop at national borders!
In our first joint mission in August 2020, with Doctors Without Borders providing emergency medical care on board, we rescued more than 200 people from distress at sea while also taking around 150 more from the overcrowded civilian rescue ship Louise Michel, bringing everyone safely ashore. Subsequently, the Sea-Watch 4 also fell victim to another Italian “port state control”, against which we successfully defended ourselves.
Several more politically motivated port state controls and almost 2000 safely disembarked people later, in May 2022 we decided to take another radical step of solidarity – we donated the Sea-Watch 4, including the money needed to operate it for one year, to our friends in SOS Humanity.
On August 27, the ship set out on its first mission as Humanity 1 and rescued 415 people from distress at sea in four challenging operations. A great success for all of us! Because if the Corona pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s this – one doesn’t master crises with elbows and boundaries. Crises are mastered together or not at all. The Sea-Watch 4 / Humanity 1 shows us again that solidarity is not only empty political talk. In civilian sea rescue, it is a lived practice.
While the EU continues to militarize and monitor its southern frontiers, we too – thanks to many creative, unyielding activists – have been able to find new ways and means to throw spanners in the works of this ruthless border regime. First and foremost, of course, through possibly our most successful high-altitude endeavor – our aerial reconnaissance mission, which took off for the first time in 2017 with the aircraft Moonbird. With its new search aircraft Seabird 1 & 2, our Airborne team is now a fundamental pillar of our organization and a core resource for maritime rescue as a whole.
Civilian sea rescuers also need documentation and technical infrastructure. This is why our cooperation project Civil MRCC tries on the one hand to make all the knowledge we have collected over the years available, and on the other to provide the whole movement with the technical means to act faster and in a more coordinated way. Meanwhile, our latest fleet upgrade, the lifeboat Aurora, after safely landing 85 people, according to unfortunate current tradition, was immediately detained by its flag state Great Britain. We too however remain true to our traditions and will fight back. Moreover, in the coming months we will launch a worthy replacement for the Sea-Watch 3 and a renewed declaration of solidarity with the people at sea!
At the same time, of course, fighting with material means is not the ultimate answer. As in 2015, it is still true today that civilian sea rescue should be abolished! But as long as ‘our’ states treat refugees and migrants like intruders to be kept away regardless of the losses, we will stand up to them, continuing to mobilize people and material in order to put an end to this barbarity.
Because no one should have to die in search of a better life.