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The inconvenient witnesses of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea

May 06, 2019
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#human trafficking, #human rights, #immigrants, #Mediterranean Sea, #open arms, #refugees
located:Spain, Greece, Turkey, Italy
by:Pablo Pérez Álvarez
Óscar Camps is a Spanish lifeguard co-founder of Open Arms, an NGO that has rescued thousands of immigrants in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. Last January, after a three-months blockade of the ship at the port of Barcelona, Spain’s authorities have forbidden Open Arms going on with their rescue missions. FairPlanet spoke with him about the consequences. 

FairPlanet: When did you start helping immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea?

Óscar Camps: In 2015 my colleague Gerard Canals and I saw the pictures of immigrants drowning in Turkey, especially that of the young Aylan. We thought, if that happened in Turkey, it would happen also on the other side of the sea, in Greece. I had by then 15,000 Euros saved to buy a second-hand sailboat, but we used it to go to Lesbos to help. First, I went with Gerard and later I took four lifeguards more with me to help on the coast until we ran out of money. Once there, we noted that it was chaos: there were no people, no organisations, the authorities were doing nothing and thousands of people were arriving every day and they were abandoned to their fate. We swam from the coast to rescue them. It was awful. Later we began to repair some of the boats abandoned by the Syrian refugees on the Greek coast and used them for the rescues. And after that, we decided to bring our own stuff from Spain, including four jet skies.

When was Open Armsofficially born?

In September that same year. We were advised to become official because we couldn’t be on the coast taking so many risks with a tourist visa. At first, we intended to act only until we ran out of money, but then we made a crowdfunding website and we got donations from the United States and Greece, among others. The organisation consolidated and we became a foundation. In March 2016 the European United get an agreement with Turkey to stop immigrants in this country and therefore the arrivals declined drastically in Greece, but there were lots of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea so we looked for a ship. Livio Lo Monaco, an Italian businessman working in Spain gave us a sailboat, the ‘Astral’. We adapted it for rescue missions, and went to the central Mediterranean to help. We rescued 14,000 people in one summer. But it wasn’t a very suitable ship for the work so we looked for another one and a Spanish businessman, Alejandro Aznar, gave us an old tug. We fixed it and named it the ‘Open Arms’. We’ve been using it during 2017 and 2018.

Were there more organisations making rescue tasks when you started?

In the beginning, there was nobody. Then we made it more visible in the media in Spain, by taking journalists and photographers with us. Some firemen organised groups and came to help. Later we went to the central Mediterranean Sea, between Libya and Italy, in international waters, with the ‘Astral’ and there was also other organisations with humanitarian ships, up to 10, from 2016 and 2018. We were coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard.

How many of these ships are still in the Mediterranean Sea?

There’s nobody now. They are all held in ports with administrative problems. There are two in Spain in this situation, one in Italy, two in the Netherlands. We have been held three times in the last twelve months in Spain. The last time was on 8th January. We wanted to leave the port of Barcelona and they denied us the departure. Our ship is being held even now (Editor's note: Five days after this interview had taken place, Spanish authorities allowed the ‘Open Arms’ to sail to Greece to get aid supplies, but has forbidden them to go on any rescue missions to the central Mediterranean Sea).

On what grounds?

The government used an administrative strategy: the fact that the closure of Italian and Maltese ports to ships with rescued immigrants would force our ship, if it rescued castaways, to sail to Spain, a long-distance and with a substantial amount of people and that would jeopardise ship safety. They prefer that immigrants die lonely and abandoned in the sea than being on the ‘Open Arms’ deck.

When did all these problems for the humanitarian ships begin?

They began with elections in Italy (March 2018) won by the Nothern League, the right and the far-right. Already during the campaign, Italy stopped coordinating these ships and started criminalising them and generating a current of opinion against the humanitarian work usually complemented with a claim of human traffic. What used to be a reason for praise and reward, is now a ground for prosecution and criminalisation. We have moved to a frivolous and political instrumentalisation of sea rescue and that led to confusing and implausible situations. In a recent shipwreck in the Straits of Gibraltar, the Spanish Maritime Safety Agency was about 200 meters from it and wasn’t allowed to intervene because the wreck was in Moroccan waters. But the Moroccan Navy took too long to get there and 45 immigrants died. Legally, the maritime international convention forced them to go. If these 45 people had been Spaniards from good families, our government would be in the Hague Tribunal right now.

What are the consequences of these blockades?

Deads. Hundreds of dead that we know about and hundreds of deaths that we will never know about. Because they don’t want us to know. We protected those people with our presence: the fact that a humanitarian ship with journalists on board was sailing in this area compels the governments to act. If we are not there, no one does anything. We are being criminalised and taken away from there because we take journalists and politician with us and we direct the spotlight where they would like to keep in the darkness in order to continue to infringe the rights of these people. But this isn’t going to be the end. We are going to operate another ship, they will hold it again and will go out again.

Are you worried about the accusations of human traffic by some governments like the Italian?

A human trafficker is somebody who moves people from one country to another for money. It’s the European Union and its member countries who are doing this when they are paying to other nations like Morocco, Turkey or Libya to stop these people and hold them against their will. And, when the money runs out, they let them go. Mohamed VI, the Moroccan king, looks the other way and lets a number of minors go to Spain. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in order to claim the money settled in the 2016 agreement, looks the other way too. That’s human trafficking. Sailing in international waters while trying to monitor and expose what’s happening has nothing to do with human trafficking and doesn’t promote it. The international waters in front of Libya are the second busiest point in the world. 97,000 merchant ships that go from the Suez Canal to the Strait of Gibraltar pass through there a year. That’s 250 ships a day, 10 per hour. A humanitarian ship there is not a pull factor. 40% of rescues are carried by merchant and humanitarian ships.

Why do you refuse to take the rescued immigrants to the ports of Libya when they are the closest ones?

The Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs says on its website that no citizen of the country must travel to Libya, that every Spaniard has been evacuated from there compulsory several years ago, that Libya is a country at war and there a risk to be kidnapped and killed even in the capital. If it’s not safe for me, it’s not safe for the immigrants also. United Nations and EU itself have claimed repeatedly that in Libya human rights are violated, that the people trapped there are tortured, enslaved, extorted and violated. That there’s not a State nor a judiciary administration to defend a citizen’s rights, that there’s a war with more than 100 ethnic groups fighting and using immigration as a funding source for the armed conflict. Return there people who are fleeing a country at war it’s not only against the UN Convention Related to the Status of Refugees but also against the Search and Rescue International Agreement.

Do you think that migratory flows in the Mediterranean Sea may be a problem for the south of Europe countries?

From 1960 to 2019 the percentage of the world population who migrate has been the same: 3.4%. We must be careful with the information we disseminate because nowadays there is a current of opinion artificially created by the right to provoke panic and chaos by saying that there’s an ‘invasion’, as 60,000 people have got the south of the country in small boats, four more times than the previous year. So what? 300,000 South Americans have come through Madrid’s airport and stayed irregularly and nobody says anything about it. Nor about the 300,000 Catholic white ones who come with a tourist visa and stayed here working illegally as waiters, as domestic workings or taking care of the elderlies. On the other hand, the immigrants who arrive in Spain, Italy, Greece… don’t want to stay in these countries as they, unfortunately, haven’t got a positive economic outlook. They have to pass through here but in Spain, they are put in buses and sent to the north, near the French frontier. That’s what the Spanish government and Andalusia (south of Spain) regional authorities are doing, without any census or sanitary control. Besides, as we are not wondering ‘What do we have to do to avoid their coming?, tomorrow will be ‘What do we have to do to appeal those who we are interested in?’. Because we are going to need them.

Are the policies carried out in Europe going to diminish irregular migratory flows?

The human race has been moving and migrating for hundreds of thousands of years, since the Palaeolithic. It wasn’t stopped by glaciation and it won’t be stopped by a wall several metres high or a sea. Trying to eliminate the migratory flows is beyond belief. In the next years between 50 and 150 million people are expected to move because of climate change. And they are going to do it by sea, as we have been militarizing and raising walls in the land borders.

What do you see as a solution?

More humanitarian work, and helping African migrants understand that the money they send home can be exploited by traffickers. To find a political solution to this is key.

Are you doing anything in this direction?

We have started now in Ghana and Senegal. We conduct awareness projects, information, training and development aid by funding local projects. We explain to them the reality, what is going to happen to them in Europe.

Article written by:
pablo perez
Pablo Pérez Álvarez
Spain Greece Turkey Italy
Embed from Getty Images
I had by then 15,000 Euros saved to buy a second-hand sailboat, and we used it to go to Lesbos to help.
Embed from Getty Images
It was chaos: there were no people, no organisations, the authorities were doing nothing and thousands of people were arriving every day and they were abandoned to their fate. It was awful.
Embed from Getty Images
We decided to bring our own stuff from Spain, including four jet skies.
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