French artist Alfred Guillou depicted the horror of being shipwrecked and drowning at sea in his heart-wrenching 1892 painting, Adieu! (pictured above). Today, life is imitating art as people continue to flee from Libya to seek asylum in Europe. Thousands have died on the perilous journey. Many more would have died if not for the few NGOs which operate rescue vessels in the central Mediterranean.
Sadly, those who try to save the migrants are not always seen in a positive light. They are villified, accused of aiding human traffickers and dismissed as a bunch of social activists. The following quotes cast light on what drives these life-savers and the scenes of human suffering they have to endure.
Europe didn’t give us a port of safety so we had to bob up and down in international waters for several days with that boy in the freezer, with his mother onboard, and you were really wondering what you are going to tell that woman whose child is in your freezer about the Nobel peace prize-winning European Union.
~ Pia Klemp, captain of rescue ship Iuventa, as quoted by The Guardian newspaper
I have white skin, I was born in a rich country, I have the right passport, I was allowed to attend three universities, and I graduated at the age of 23. I feel a moral obligation to help those people who did not have the foundations that I did.
Instead of assisting people in need, Europe prefers to support the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which continuously causes the deaths of many people with their brutal interference, including the illegal abduction of displaced and fleeing persons back to Libya. The situation we currently find ourselves in is perverse. It could not be further away from the humanitarian principles we believed the European community to be based upon.
~ Michael Schwickart, Head of Fundraising / Crewmember, Sea-Watch
My strongest memory from the Aquarius was the day I hugged a tiny baby – just a few weeks old – as his mother boarded the boat. His skin was all raw from scabies. Wrapped in his blanket, he was so light that he seemed not to weigh anything.
~ Viviana, lifeguard aboard the Aquarius, from SOS Mediterranee Log entry #79
We don’t want to hear the praise of those who consider us heroes. Because it shouldn’t happen, because the world shouldn’t need such heroes.
~ Edouard, SAR-Team member aboard the Aquarius, from SOS Mediterranee Log entry #83 (translated from German by Anna Kallage)
People, including underage minors, have described being tortured with electric shocks, beaten with guns and sticks, or burned with melted plastic. They tell me how they still feel the pain from their wounds and scars sustained during their time in Libya.
Saving lives is non negotiable. Saving lives is what we do, what we will continue to fight for, and what we urge you to defend. Saving lives is indeed a fundamental part of the Global Compact. Whether states choose to endorse this compact or not, they are bound by national, regional, and international law. This compact is based on existing responsibilities, that prohibit treating people like commodities, wherever they are. Regardless of why people left their place of origin, they need protection from violence and exploitation.
~ Dr Joanne Liu, International President, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
The accusation that humanitarian rescuers are a pull factor for migrants is akin to saying that “NGOs working in a refugee camp are the reason for refugees.”
~ Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), DEFENDING HUMANITY AT SEA