By Friedhold Ulonska and Alper Taparli
Why would people leave their home, their city, or even their country to go towards the unknown? If the stories of those who have dared to go on this journey are so horrific that you have to cry while hearing them, why would people start in the same direction regardless?
Because there is no other way.
Because bigger horrors await you if you stay.
The focus of this article will be on the people. People who lost their homes, their livelihoods, and were forced to leave everything they knew and loved behind.
For Syrians, it started over 9 years ago and did not stop since. Although it is called a multi-sided civil war, there has never been anything “civil” about war. Incited by the never-ending hunger for resources and power, domestic and foreign forces began a war in Syria that killed over 400.000 people and destroyed entire cities mainly in the northern part of the country. Healthcare centers and hospitals, schools, utilities, and water and sanitation systems are damaged or destroyed. Historic landmarks and once-busy marketplaces have been reduced to rubble. War broke the social and business ties that bound people to their communities. According to the 2020 Progress Report of the UNHCR 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, over 6 million people found refuge in other cities of Syria and each conflict in the area adds to the numbers.
Only one in six of the people who set out to Europe was able to get to their destination. Due to a deal between the European Union and Turkey over 3.6 million Syrian refugees are stuck in Turkey, many of them against their will. Most of them have become a part of the Turkish society. They are working in the factories sadly often for lower wages and with almost no social security which drives a wedge between them and the working locals, selling their goods on the markets and in their shops which have, to the annoyance of the locals, Syrian names. But the frictions between the locals and the Syrians in Turkey are, until today, within acceptable limits although integration is not a priority for the Turkish government. Social work is nonexistent and the little integration work that exists is done by young idealistic volunteers. Syrians in Turkey complain about the working conditions and the high cost of living because they are being exploited by the employers as little more than slaves.
Africans are Fleeing for their Life too
The history of Africans seeking refuge in Europe is much older. Since the early 1960s Africans came to Europe to have a better life. Much of this migration was from Northwest Africa (mostly Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians) to France, Germany, The Netherlands, and Belgium. This resulted in large diasporas with origins in these countries. In the 1980s the destination countries broadened to include Spain and Italy as well. While the first generations of Africans came to Europe for a better life as a result of the demand for low-skilled labor in the industrialized countries, the reasons and the urgency of migration has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Today it is not Northwest African people who are in search of a better life anymore, the majority of the people seeking refuge in Europe are from Sub-Saharan Africa and they are fleeing from political conflicts, natural disasters, population pressure, and economic recession. Famine caused by years of drought forces these people to begin a journey of which they know that they might not survive. The European Union does not have a common immigration policy and its corridors are a bureaucratic swamp when it comes to refugees. Signed treaties like the Dublin Regulation increase pressure on the external border regions of the EU while countries like Germany can decide if they allow the asylum application or send them back to the first country of entry to the EU. Other EU treaties prove to be little more than the pretense of goodwill while the officials both in the European Union and the individual countries try to find ways to keep refugees out. One has to admit that they are very creative in that: Building walls is bad PR so Europe just puts whole countries between its borders and the people who are seeking refuge. The deal with Turkey for example convinced the autocratic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to keep over 3.6 million registered Syrians within the Turkish borders against their will. Details of this deal can only be guessed because of Erdogan´s declarations that the money doesn´t flow as promised and because of his threats to open the borders and “flood” Europe. In the South, Europe made deals with Libya to keep the refugees from getting into dinghies to start the life-threatening journey towards Italy over the Mediterranean Sea. The facts that organ trafficking, murder, extortion by torture, and slave trade has become a normality in Libya doesn´t interest the officials in Europe. A few philanthropic approaches in the mainstream media can be found but the use of terms like “flooding the country”, “economic refugees” or “infiltration of the social welfare system” has damaged the atmosphere irreparably. Racism is on the rise in nearly all European countries and slowly but steadily makes its way up to the highest instances of politics and bureaucracy. There is little to no attempt to improve the living conditions in the countries refuge seeking people come from. Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the richest regions of the world. One of the reasons for the grievances in this part of the world is over exploitation by the “western world”. Instead of setting up well-funded programs that enable the people to live and thrive in their homeland, we set up barriers between us and them. There are people and organizations in the West that try to help these people within the framework of legislation. Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye, and Mission Lifeline are just a few of them. Their mission is to save the lives of the people who end up on a dinghy in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. According to maritime law, the shipmaster has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status, or the circumstances in which they are found. International maritime law demands further, that the rescued people are brought to the nearest safe harbor. But even the work of these organizations is a thorn in the side of many EU officials.
Friedhold Ulonska has been on many rescue missions and has seen both hope and despair in the eyes of the people he tried to rescue with his team. In a text he wrote for a social project he describes the circumstances in which the rescue work is done:
“The bridge deck of the “Lifeline” is suddenly totally deserted. The fugitives who sat there, have disappeared, taken cover: Shots fall. Militias try to board our ship and the poor souls back to Libya by force to drag. I stand alone on the bridge. In the Moment all that remains for me is to keep my course and my nerves. It is September 26, 2017, early afternoon. Slowly, very slowly, some faces appear in front of the windows of the wheelhouse. From their hiding places upwards, they slide in front of the windshield. Stare at me, eyes wide open. The windshield is a window to abysmal horror. I find no words to describe what is reflected in these eyes, not until today. I cannot forget him: Since that insight, I have an idea of what these people must have experienced, what they are fleeing from, what horror is breathing down their necks.
Often, saved people have told me: “Better to drown in the sea than to go back to Libya”. On this day we must watch as a refugee tries to make this true. Seeing the Libyan militia, he jumps from the safe ship back into the sea. We must save him from certain death with gentle force. A second time that day, this time against his will.
Everybody who made it onto one of the inflatable boats is already a survivor. The people set out because of many different reasons: War and terror by marauding gangs are at the top of the list, followed by persecution and oppression from religious, political, and social reasons. Young men flee Eritrea, for example, because they are forced to life-long military service at home. Mothers take their daughters and flee, in order to save their daughters from forced circumcision. And of course, many people flee from misery: no work, no income, no water, nothing to eat, no future for the children. The number of people with this fate is growing year by year due to climate change. More than 95% of refugees in Africa flee within their own country or to a neighboring country. Less than one percent of the people find their way to Europe in the end. A large part of them chooses the central Mediterranean route via Libya. These people mostly come from countries in the south or east of the Sahara and must therefore go through the desert first. This is only possible with help of smugglers; whole tribes on the southern edge of the Sahara live from this business. It is a Journey with high risk: According to estimates about half of the refugees die on the way through the desert. There are no exact numbers. Whoever makes it to Libya is therefore already a Survivor. But the arrival in Libya means also arrival at the next level of terror. Libya is a lawless country where the government only dominates some parts of the capital. Otherwise, the law of the strongest applies: clans and Tribes, gangs and militias fight in the whole land for their own benefit. Fugitives are only as interesting, as the amount of money that can be made with them. This leaves forced labor, sale on the slave market, Prostitution, and extortion as the economic sectors. The means are violence, torture, rape, murder. There are reports from the camps in Libya of unimaginable horrors. The worst thing about it: There are almost no other stories. The German Foreign Office speaks in an internal Report of “concentration camp-like conditions”; dirty and overcrowded quarters, malnutrition, and lack of hygiene are just the minor flaws. Who is stuck in such a camp in Libya, has no choice anymore: The way back into the Home is blocked. Passports of the refugees are long since taken off as security so that they can´t run away; exactly the same way as they do with immigrant workers from Morocco or Bangladesh, who are also stuck in Libya by the thousands. They all have two choices left: To die miserably in Libya or to dare an escape over the Mediterranean Sea. If they even have the choice that is: Not everyone gets that chance, and not everyone voluntarily climbs into a wobbly dinghy to stay in it for days with only endless water around. On the sea, civilian rescue ships come into the Game. So far (Easter 2020) I have been on ten operations, as a captain or as a nautical officer, on ships that were built for the German Aid organizations Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye, Mission Lifeline, and Resqship. These NGOs (Non-Governmental organization) are as well as their counterparts from other European countries, not profit-oriented organizations which exclusively depend on donations.
Their goal: Saving people from death in the sea – because nobody else does it.
What we do with these ships is easily explained: We look out for boats with refugees in international waters, 30-40 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. At the beginning of our missions we often got reports of boats with exact position from search planes or other ships; often also the Italian MRCC (The Maritime Rescue Center in Rome), which took care of the coordination of the sea rescue. If a boat is sighted, we launch fast dinghies. We explore the situation and then supply the people first with life jackets, so the people don´t drown immediately in case their fragile boat capsizes. After that the people are brought to the auxiliary ship in groups: Injured and needy first, then women and children, and then all the others. Onboard they will get, if necessary, medical care, dry
clothes, water, a dry place, and something to eat. For the saved this is world-changing because they have not experienced this for a long time: They are treated like humans: With respect, Empathy and helpfulness. And so the tension and fear dissolve gradually, the terror of the past months gives way to relief, joy, and confidence: The future is on the horizon.
What they, fortunately, do not know yet: It will be a future without arrival for a long time to come.
Because more and more clearly Europe is showing that it actually doesn´t want the survivors. Everything was very simple until summer 2017: the private ships could transfer the rescued people to ships of the Italian Guardia Costiera (coast guard) or also to the naval ships of the EU mission “Sophia”. Sometimes the rescue center also sent out a large civilian ship. These brought the people to a safe place, usually a port in Sicily. Since then, the EU countries have gradually changed this practice to finally stop it altogether. At first, they forbade the rescued people to be transferred on other ships, the rescuers had to bring them to Europe themselves, often with ships that were much too small and unsuitable for this purpose. Then the rescue ships were kept waiting for a long time on the open sea to be sent to distant ports eventually. In the end, Italy in particular (but also Malta and other neighboring countries) refused ships with rescued people on board the entrance to their ports. Weeks of wandering with sometimes hundreds of increasingly desperate people on board were the result. Sometimes this madness could only be ended by the fact that the captains took initiative and went to the ports against the instructions of the authorities. Just as Captain Carola Rackete did with the “Sea-Watch 3” in a famous action.
It is an undisputed duty for ships as for states, to rescue people in distress at sea. It is also undisputed: Whoever is on a ship under the EU flag is under the protection of the European law. It is therefore forbidden to bring people who have fled back to a country where they have to fear a violation of their human rights. To return the rescued to Libya is therefore illegal. EU politicians know that too. So what can they do to achieve their goal which is to keep fugitives away from Europe?
Since the end of 2017, the EU has relied on Libyan militias. The calculation: If we are not allowed to send them back, then we pay the Libyans to do this dirty work for us. That remains to be contrary to international law but is no longer our problem. The EU is equipping Libyan militias for this purpose with many hundred million Euros, several ships, and logistical support. Libyan gangs have since been able to choose what they will collect for: For setting the fugitives on inflatable boats and send them to their most certain deaths, or for preventing their escape for EU money? Or both?
And if refugees do make it out to sea Libyan raiders catch the getaway boats at sea and drag the people back to where they came from. You can see the horror in the eyes of the people who get caught. Some of those who were taken back were seen on the Slave market in Tripoli offered for sale, for 400-600 Euros a few days later. For the “Coast Guard” it is a lucrative business in any case: Today half of the refugees who make it to the sea are dragged back by these minions of Europe.
At the instigation of the EU, Libya has declared a special zone on the sea, in which it is solely responsible for the search and rescue of people in distress at sea. Libya does not fulfill its obligations associated with this declaration. But this does not interest Europe: Italy and Malta state that they are now not responsible if boats are to be found in need. For this purpose, Italy has withdrawn its coastguard completely from the sea area.
Big ships, which once saved many thousands of people, now take care of the fisheries control. The EU mission Sophia was discontinued. Frontex monitors the area only from the air and does not report boats in distress to ships in the vicinity, as it is intended and obvious, but only to the so-called Libyan coast guard. So you prevent arrival. Another tactic is added: Preventing that civil rescue ships leave the port at all. Dozens of times rescue ships have been held in the ports since 2018, for weeks, sometimes for months. Ships were confiscated, preliminary proceedings were initiated against captains and crews, protracted often repetitive checks were ordered to prevent them from setting out.
Incidentally, all proceedings were terminated or ended with acquittals. The civil rescue ships have done everything right. Practically all Complaints by NGOs against arbitrary obstruction of their ships were granted. Nevertheless, the EU has achieved its goal: A ship that is stuck can help nobody to arrive. According to calculations of the Italian Institute for international policy (ISPI), this alone has led to 1,300 days in which rescue ships could not operate.
Politics, even in Germany, is no longer about helping people in need. They are occupied with finding loopholes in the law; which will help to lever out the clear humanitarian obligations according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, EU Charter, or Basic Law. Another popular trick: You call for “European solutions”. “Before you come to an understanding with Hungary and Poland today´s children will be grownups”, commented one of the most popular leftist politicians, Gregor Gysi in a debate of the German Federal Government on the admission of unaccompanied children from Greek refugee camps. One could also simply do nothing, but the detour via Brussels simply sounds better, and the result is the same. If all this is not enough, then there is still the swamp of bureaucracy. Rescued people who were supposed to come to us are still, for months, stuck in Italy. The reason: The mills of the administration must grind further.
So the oppressed people have not much to expect from politicians to help them out of their plight. 20,000 fugitives drowned in the Mediterranean Sea between 2015 and 2019, and these are only those who are known for sure. Fortunately, politicians are not all that Europe has to offer…”
When we talk about these people we use numbers, we talk about them as a threat, as a problem that has to be solved. Often our society forgets to see them for what they are: People in need of help. Our next generations will judge us by the way we treat the people who seek refuge in our societies and the judgment they will make will be a harsh one. Starting with our reporting on the issue, we need to rethink our entire refugee policy in the West. Our team of ProJoMedia has decided to forward a big part of the donations to NGOs that rescue and help refugees.