As 1,000 Refugees Drown Under European Policies, Meet the Volunteers Who Are Trying to Save Lives
Up to 1,000 refugees are feared to have drowned in recent days while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The United Nations say this marks one of the highest weekly death tolls since the migrant crisis began in 2014. UNICEF says many of the victims were youth fleeing war and violence in their home countries. The majority of the refugees were from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. Under a European Union plan enacted in April, all refugees arriving in Greece are deported back to Turkey, forcing people to attempt the more dangerous route between Libya and Italy. On Monday, a photo of a German volunteer from the group Sea-Watch holding the body of a drowned child became the latest symbol of the migration crisis. We speak with Ruben Neugebauer, crew member and spokesperson for Sea-Watch, a German volunteer group that was formed to help migrants stranded at sea.
AMY GOODMAN: Up to a thousand refugees are feared to have drowned in recent days while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The United Nations say this marks one of the highest weekly death tolls since the migrant crisis began in 2014. UNICEF says many of the victims were youth fleeing war and violence in their home countries. The majority of the refugees were from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. Under a European Union plan enacted in April, all refugees arriving in Greece are deported back to Turkey, forcing people to attempt the more dangerous route between Libya and Italy. Speaking Tuesday, UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler talked about the sharp rise in migrant deaths.
WILLIAM SPINDLER: Thus far, 2016 is proving to be particularly deadly. Some 2,510 lives have been lost so far, compared to 1,855 in the same period in 2015 and 57 in the first five months of 2014. On a Mediterranean-wide basis, the odds of being among the dead are currently one in 81. This highlights the importance of rescue operations as part of the response to the movement of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, and the need for real, safer alternatives for people needing international protection.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, a photo of a German volunteer from the group Sea-Watch holding the body of a drowned child became the latest symbol of the migration crisis. We go now to Berlin, Germany, to speak with Ruben Neugebauer, who is a Sea-Watch spokesperson and crew member, Sea-Watch a German volunteer group that was formed to help migrants stranded at sea.
Ruben, welcome to Democracy Now! Start out by explaining the scope of the crisis right now.
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: Good morning. What we have faced in the last week in the central Mediterranean Sea is not only a period of good weather, leading to a lot of boats leaving Libya in that kind of times, it’s also the result of European foreign policy. What we see here is a European Union that is forcing people on small and unseaworthy boats, because there is no other legal way to get into the European Union to seek for asylum there. So, what we are having here right now is the latest result of European policy. It’s a system of letting people die willingly because we refuse any other safe way to get into the European Union.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it your sense that in the last few days a thousand people have drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea?
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: Yes, it looks like as if a thousand people have died. It’s quite hard to get exact numbers in that kind of tragedies, because what we have faced here is different incidents where big wooden boats have capsized. And in the beginning of such a tragedy, often you only count a few people dead, but often a lot of people are trapped below deck of that kind of boat, and then only days after the tragedy the real numbers will get known by the public. And we have to fear that a lot of people died last week, and also we have to fear that this kind of tragedies will occur again and again as long as people are forced onto that kind of boat.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the practice of water hosing, Ruben?
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: Yes. What we have been facing, not in the central Mediterranean Sea, but in the route over the Aegean Sea, is that the European Union has shut down the route through Turkey to Greece, which is not a safe route, but at least it’s not that dangerous as it is to crossing over the central Mediterranean Sea. Of course, it’s not just telling refugees who are fleeing war just to stay at home, and it will work; therefore, the European Union has set a lot—set up a lot of fortification measures. And in the case of Turkey, the European Union is letting do the Turks the dirty work.
So, what members of our crew have witnessed is that a practice of water hosing migrant boats in the Aegean Sea was a practice used by the Turkish Coast Guard to avoid refugees from crossing. And for us, this kind of water hosing is absolutely unacceptable. And that’s why we think that this Turkey deal also has to be stopped. Anyhow, we are quite sure that what we need is a real safe passage which does not force the people on any boat at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Ruben, can you describe where the German volunteer from your group, Sea-Watch, found the baby, the child, who was drowned, who’s become the latest symbol of the refugee crisis, the famous photo that has now gone out?
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: Yeah. This photo of this baby was made right off the Libyan coast in the central Mediterranean Sea on Friday the 27th, when our crew came to the spot of a huge tragedy where a big wooden boat had capsized, leaving more than 350 people in the water. When our crew was called to get there, we tried to get there immediately, but then, on the way, we had to do another rescue operation because we found another boat in distress. So, our crew took the 126 persons on board and sent our speedboat ahead. The speedboat was then busy with recovering those who were still alive, but already a lot of people had drowned when our speedboat arrived. And later on, we were asked by the Italian Navy, which was in place with another ship, the Vega, as well, to help recovering those who haven’t made the journey and who drowned in that incident. And so, we asked for volunteers in our crew who could help to recover the bodies, and they went with the speedboat and found that boy—sorry, that baby, floating right under the surface.
AMY GOODMAN: And the decision to publish that photo, Ruben, which your group has described as a very difficult decision?
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: Yeah, it’s always a difficult decision to publish that kind of photos. But in this specific case, we thought the graveness of the situation simply forces us kind of to publish that picture, because the European society has to acknowledge that kind of picture, because this picture is a result of our policy. It’s a result of the policy to shut down borders and to force people onto that boat. The European Union is using the Mediterranean Sea as its castle ditch, filling it up with dead bodies to scare off those who might come after them, so we let them die willingly. And so, the discussion should not be about whether we should publish that kind of picture. The discussion should be about if we let those pictures happen.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen right now?
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: What we need right now is, first of all, a EU mission with a clear mandate for search and rescue, because at the moment the ships that are down there and that are doing a good job in rescue often—they are often military ships that don’t really have a search-and-rescue mandate. But this is only something we can do just right now starting from tomorrow. What we also need—and this is the only way to solve that kind of crisis—is to have safe and legal passage. If we would just allow those people to take a ferry, as everybody else with a European passport can do, we would have no smuggling business at all, right starting from the day that we would allow them to go on the ferries, and we wouldn’t face such tragedies again. If we only have rescue efforts, which the European Union is already doing, we will face these tragedies ever and ever again, because also these rescue missions stay quite dangerous. This is what we have faced last week when those capsizings took place, even if rescue boats were around.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think the United States should do?
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: I mean, we are facing a huge crisis. We have war in a lot of places. We have poverty. And this is all causing escapes. Also, I’m quite sure that the climate change will cause more refugees which have to leave their countries because of this very soon. So what the United States can do, actually, is to do their best to avoid causes of escape, so that people have the opportunity to stay in their home countries, because nobody leaves voluntarily. However, also in the migrant crisis, I mean, the U.S. is a great country, and so, for sure, it’s a problem that is not only to solve by a few countries, it’s a task for the whole world, most probably. So, what Canada did last year when a picture, a similar picture, was published, by Alan Kurdi, was to offer some Syrians a safe way out to Canada. So this is something the U.S. could do, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, when we were covering the U.N. climate summit in Paris, we went to Calais, about two hours north by train, which had the largest refugee camp in Paris. We—what, 6,000 to 7,000 people were there. Sikandar, an Afghan refugee, explained why he fled Europe and his country.
SIKANDAR: If I have a problem in my country, I have to go forward, you know? I don’t have to go back. If I go back, I’m—100 percent, I die. But for this, I can risk. I say, OK, maybe 50 percent, I go. So some people—I think people are thinking like this: If I go back, I will die, and I have a very bad life. It’s better to try, 50 percent—maybe I will go there and I will arrive there, and I will have a normal life.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sikandar. I spoke to him in the refugee camp that the refugees themselves called "The Jungle." Now, the map of that one refugee camp read like the bombing targets of the United States, where the refugees came from—Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia. Can you—Syria. Can you talk about that connection to war, Ruben?
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: Yeah, I mean, what we are facing is a lot of people that flee for different causes, actually. So, for sure, war is one of the main reasons people flee. And as long as we have war, we will always have refugees coming. So there is a quite clear connection between war and between refugees that come. I mean, we are an humanitarian organization, so, for us, it doesn’t matter why people come. We will try whomever is on that kind of boat, because no one deserves to die at sea. But for sure, war is one of the main reasons.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ruben, talk about how your group, Sea-Watch, got started.
RUBEN NEUGEBAUER: Our group got started in early last year, when we were facing a lot of tragedies on the central Mediterranean Sea and also there was the anniversary of the fall of the wall on the 9th of November, 2014. And so, we were celebrating the fall of a wall in Berlin, but on the same time we are building up another wall around Europe. And so we thought that if we really remember what happened during the times of Berlin Wall, we need to shut down this new wall. And we thought about what we could do. And so, a old fishing cutter was bought, because we couldn’t stand the many people dying in the central Mediterranean Sea, and so we went there with a ship simply to save human lives. And that’s what we’ve done last year. And out of that, the NGO was funded, and now we are doing this job again. And it looks like as if we have to do it for some more time, because there’s no signs at the moment that the European Union would change its politics to a more human one. So we have to fear that we have to stay there for quite a long time.
AMY GOODMAN: Ruben Neugebauer, I want to thank you very much for being with us, spokesperson and crew member of the all-volunteer group Sea-Watch. We spoke to him in Berlin, Germany.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we turn to the Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization [of] American States. Stay with us.
Filed under: Refugees