They want to save lives – instead, volunteers collect plastic from the Mediterranean Sea

On board of the rescue ships that aren't allowed to rescue.
Von Leonie Ruhland

Dieser Beitrag wurde am 10.10.2018 auf veröffentlicht.

The small grey rubber dinghy, which everyone calls "Hülse" (shell), chugs loudly towards the red old fishing cutter, the "Seefuchs" (sea fox) of the organization Sea-Eye. Neeske Beckmann steers the small boat to the starboard side of the cutter. "Good morning," calls the 29-year-old and jumps onto the wooden deck. It's hot. Crew members scratch rust from the railing, others cook spaghetti with vegetables in the galley. There is nothing else to do.

For months the rescue ships of Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Mission Lifeline have been stuck in Malta. 

The volunteers are not allowed to help the refugees at sea. Only the "Mare Junio" was allowed to leave, but therefore Sea-Watch had to join forces with the Italian organization Mediterranea. (bento).

"Sea-Eye"-machinist Marco Müller comes on deck, wipes his oily hands on a cloth. He picks up an old truck tarpaulin from a corner. "We're making a banner now," says Beckmann. Soon another Germany-wide demo will take place, the volunteers on Malta want to deliver photos from the site for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Beckmann knows her way around banners. In Magdeburg, where she studied psychology, neo-Nazis often demonstrated. She protested against it, became a spokeswoman, was targeted by right-wing radicals, who even published her address. Now the 29-year-old is Mission part of the "Lifeline" crew. The ship made the headlines because in June it had to wait five days at sea with 234 refugees on board. Only then did Malta approve the entry.

Since then the Maltese government has detained the ships of the German non-governmental organizations (NGOs) Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Mission Lifeline, allegedly because the ship registration is not legal.

In recent months, the "Aquarius" has bobbed around twice with refugees on board off Malta until it was allowed to dock. Only recently, Panama, under pressure from Italy, withdrew the approval of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ship. (bento)

But it is not only the civil sea rescue that has to pause at the moment. The EU mission Sophia was also suspended for the time being this summer. The EU was active with military ships in the Mediterranean to rescue refugees. The ships were ordered back to the ports in July. The reason: Italy refuses to accept any more people rescued by EU military ships. (SPIEGEL ONLINE)

Every two to three weeks the teams change on the boats of the private sea rescue for a new mission. The work is honorary, the people take holidays for it. And they are not allowed to save any people. Not for weeks.  

Instead of going on rescue missions, the crew members around Neeske Beckmann now discuss how they can support protests in Germany. 

They cannot do anything else at the moment, so they support the initiative Seebrücke from Malta, which calls for solidarity with private sea rescue through actions and protests. The crew members want to spread out a banner and take pictures. 

Beckmann sits on the deck of the "Lifeline". She has been living on the ship since July 1st, originally as an inflatable communicator for the seventh rescue mission. With her language skills in French, Swahili, and Arabic, she can pass on the most important information at first contact.

Now she is taking on another task: networking and external communication. 

People must understand what is happening in the world. This is prevented from all sides.

Neeske Beckmann

Malta has now also banned Sea-Watch from using its "Moonbird" reconnaissance aircraft.

We are now a part of the harbour tour.

Neeske Beckmann

Shortly after, the boat swings. She closes her eyes. "Oh, I miss ship movements."

Since 2015 there have been NGOs in the Mediterranean, a response to Frontex, which replaced the Italian naval operation Mare Nostrum. More than 130,000 people were rescued by the Italians. 

Frontex, on the other hand, should above all secure the border. Critics called this a failure of European refugee policy. Off the Libyan coast alone, the civilian rescuers have saved more than 100,000 in the past three years, a quarter of all the refugees there. 

Critics, however, accuse them of fueling the flight across the Mediterranean and enabling human trafficking.

Beckmann was on her first mission in April – back then with Sea-Eye. "Then we noticed that the political climate was turning. When the organization asked the MRCC, the sea rescue control center, for refugees at sea, it was rejected. None there, they said. 

A short time later it became clear that this was not true. In the meantime, however, the Libyan Coast Guard had arrived to bring refugees back to Libya. A country known for torture, rape, and human trafficking. Critics say: Not only would UN countries violate the Geneva Refugee Convention, but international maritime law also prescribes a passage to a "safe place". 

That was on purpose. They don't want us there. That was the moment when I thought: Fuck you!

Neeske Beckmann

The next day the volunteers work on their banner on the "Sea Watch". It takes a while until a few crew members have gathered on deck. Beckmann is annoyed that everything takes longer, that minutes sometimes become hours. The past few weeks have left their mark.

"There's a lot of potential frustration here," says Beckmann as she spreads out the tarpaulin on the quay in front of the ship. "Unfortunately, the momentum from the beginning disintegrates. At some point, every crew reaches a point where people are fed up."

Stefanie Hilt, a medical doctor, has grabbed the compressed air cleaner and comes to her aid. Actually, she treats burns from refugees, which they draw from the mixture of salt water, petrol, and feces on the rubber dinghies, and also treats other skin diseases, sprains and the consequences of malnutrition. "Children are usually in the worst condition," she says, "they can survive for a long time, but once they are rescued, the body simply shuts itself off. 

Hilt could save lives. Now she is making banners.

Since the beginning of 2017, she has been a member of the changing Sea Watch team. She had to reanimate a baby in her first assignment. To no success.

In Germany she works as an experiential teacher, she studied international emergency and disaster relief. Hilt no longer understands the EU:

The problem could easily be solved if there were a fair distribution of refugees and faster asylum procedures.

Stefanie Hilt

Her most formative experience was their encounter with the Libyan Coast Guard. From a defective refugee boat, people climbed in panic onto the deck of the Coast Guard's ship. The men reacted aggressively, beating the people and pushing them from the boarding ladder into the sea. They wriggled in the water. "We saw how they hit people with ropes," Hilt says.

The activists fold up the now painted and dried tarpaulin and take Jon out of his bunk. He owns a drone and is to take photographs.

Just five kilometers further on, at a bathing place in front of the open sea, the 15 volunteers throw rings and vests into the sea and jump after them. Beckmann conducts from the rock: The tarpaulin has to be fastened to the rings. Then she jumps into the water, too. In the background, jet skis and sailboats cross.

"It's so banal," says Beckmann in a soft voice as she fishes the life jackets out of the water again. "I wish that people would see with their own eyes what happens. Go to the refugee camps in Greece for two weeks, she says, and then tell me that everything is okay. 

People complain about too many foreigners. They say that they are not badly off. That they should consider themselves lucky not to be at war anymore.

Neeske Beckmann

She's shaking her head. 

"When you meet someone who, as the eldest son of the family, was sent across the sea, and hear his story about the war, you may not let yourself be carried away to make such statements."

On the way back to the harbor, plastic waste floats in the water. "Ready to rescue", calls one of the sea rescuers and fishes a bottle out of the water.

The crew drives to the NGO Beach, a platform at the outer harbor edge. A place far away from their ships, far away from the discussions, the constant reminder that they are not making progress, the lethargy.

"For me, sea rescue is the thing on which everything hangs: How we as the EU deal with migration, with people. Racism, capitalism, oppression of women, exploitation and the environment – all of these are to be found here, and all of these are also our responsibilities," says Beckmann.

Crew member Sören Mojes pulls his "No borders Navy" cap deeper into his face. Then he says to Beckmann: 

Did you know I'm a big fan of David Hasselhoff?

Sören Mojes

The star had advertised for a cruise in the Mediterranean, so he had written him an email, asking whether he knew what was going on in the Mediterranean. "He never replied." Beckmann hast to laugh.

Late in the evening, Beckmann sits on the roof terrace of the "Sea Watch" camp, an old house in the harbor of Kalkara. Here she has peace and quiet and functioning Internet, so she can work. 

She watches the video from today. It shows the banner in the dark water: "Everyone has the right to Life". At first very close, then the focus pulls out more and more until the people and lifebuoys around them are just fidgeting like little ants in the water. It has turned out well. Tomorrow it will run on all NGO channels.

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