Inspired by a sense of solidarity among seafarers, German merchant navy captain Klaus Vogel put his career on hold to help migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.
With humanitarian and social aid worker Sophie Beau, from Marseille, he founded SOS Méditerranée which has saved more than 26,000 people.
Awarded the Grand Vermeil medal – the city of Paris’s highest honour – he has written a book, Tous sont vivants (éditions les Arènes), on their rescue work on the ship, Aquarius.
You were awarded the City of Paris medal and your book is with a French publisher – do you have other links with France?
SOS Méditerranée was set up as a European organisation in 2015 then as national associations in different countries, including France, so it was a natural choice to go with a French publisher. We have organisers in France, including my co-founder, and a large number of citizens who support us. Also some of our team on the ship are French as well as other nationalities including German, Italian, Spanish and British. The City of Paris medal was for all of us.
Why did you decide you had to do something?
The most important reason was that the Italian government rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, abruptly ended in October/November 2014 and there was literally nobody any more to help. Italy had rescued 150,000 in one year.
I met people, including co-founder Sophie Beau, and we decided to set up a European organisation and to raise money to hire a big, strong vessel.
We wanted to be in the Mediterranean, be witnesses and report the situation as it was, not just stand by.
It must have been very difficult financially
Yes, it is difficult and expensive; it costs €11,000/a day but we have a lot of supporters in Italy and France and other countries, even beyond Europe, as so many people understand that people cannot be left to die at sea.
Where are the people you rescue fleeing from?
One rescue ship operates between the Libyan coast and Lampedusa, Sicily; most people are fleeing Libya, where many have migrated to from other areas, often seeking work.
In Libya they are trapped and the situation there is terrible, especially for sub-Saharan people. They have no choice but to flee by sea, in dangerous and fragile boats, which means it’s an emergency from the start.
Many have left countries like Somalia or places in West Africa where there are war zones or because there is hunger and no work where they live. Libya is hell for sub-Saharan people.
Do they go to try to cross the sea?
Some might come wanting to get to Europe, or to Libya looking for work. But in Libya they are tortured, imprisoned, abused and many of the women we rescue have been raped. Some are pregnant. It’s a horrible situation.
Why have we seen rising numbers of migrants in recent years?
It’s been happening since the start of the 2000s but alternative safe routes have since been closed. In the end the only place seemingly open was Libya, since the government collapsed. But the situation there is unacceptable.
Is it also due to Islamism?
Among the people we rescue, half are Christian and half are Muslim.
They have different backgrounds and it’s not easy for us to identify the reasons. We rescue them, have them on board a maximum two and a half days, we contact an Italian maritime rescue centre and take them to Sicily.
What happens then?
The Italian authorities provide first aid and shelter. Then they enter this European system of reception. Some continue to other countries but we don’t know about this in detail.
But this is something Europe needs to deal with much more than now as it’s being left to the Italian government to manage and find solutions.
The country where migrants arrive is supposed to deal with them… so Italy is affected disproportionately and it has strong anti-immigration and eurosceptic parties…
Yes, the situation is becoming more difficult. European solidarity, on rescue and doing the necessary minimum of humanitarian aid to these people, is not working properly.
Should France do more?
As a humanitarian organisation active in the Mediterranean, we cannot evaluate every country. Europe as a whole is lacking solidarity and cooperation is important. European governments have to find solutions that are supported by their communities.
The migrant crisis is not so much in the news now – are you still rescuing thousands of people?
We still rescue sometimes thousands, sometimes hundreds of people. Numbers have decreased but that doesn’t mean there are no people fleeing.
The humanitarian situation in Libya is getting worse. The medical condition of the people we rescue is much worse. It was terrible two years ago, and it has not improved.
How do you identify where people need help?
We are on search and rescue all the time, going up and down in the areas where rescues have happened before.
Many cases are notified to us by Italian maritime rescue centres. We get a call and we search in that area and often find one, two or three boats.
I should also mention that the situation has changed. When we started, there was no functioning Libyan coastguard and, while European governments have not supported civil rescue, they have supported the Libyan coastguards, so there are more units. This is increasing our difficulties as their manner of dealing with migrants is aggressive, not humanitarian. People get scared and there is an increased risk of accidents in rescues with interference from the coastguard.
Because they don’t treat people well, people try to escape and they drown.
Do you have situations where you cannot get to people on time?
There are always cases where the rubber boats are already sinking when we get there and people are already drowning or have drowned and sometimes we’ve rescued a boat but in the bottom were people who had died before, which horrifies the survivors.
Were you disappointed by British attitudes in the Brexit campaign?
We are deeply disappointed by the reactions of all European governments. There is none which openly declared and supported the rescues.
They were hiding one behind the other and too afraid of their right-wing politicians, who try to make people afraid of these people.
There is no reason to be afraid of them. They are desperate and need help and support.
They need the best possible solution either in Europe or in their country, but we cannot leave them to die at sea or in Libya.
Are you still involved in rescues?
No, I was the first rescue coordinator on Aquarius, and since then we have trained other coordinators. I’ve moved into a voluntary support position.
Receiving the Paris medal must have been encouraging?
It was a good moment, to feel the support of the city of Paris and the mayor and I am really happy about it.
But what is needed is to work to change the situation so that people don’t need to flee and to develop alternative ways for people so they don’t need to risk their lives at sea.
This work is for European governments and we hope they will finally find their way in that direction together with African governments, to improve the situation. They need to end this hopeless situation of people leaving in rubber boats that are so fragile they cannot even reach Sicily and without a way to return.
Syrians attacked us in Aleppo, then Daesh... we had to flee
Kurdish Syrian Beriban Jamal, 28, told Connexion how she fled Syrian attacks on the Kurdish minority in Aleppo to reach France.
I was an English teacher. After my father lost his business and our home when Assad attacked we fled to our home village on the Turkish border but it was besieged by extremists.
Kurds were persecuted and it made us easy prey for Daesh who attacked my town and killed hundreds of civilians in 2014. We fled into Turkey.
There are more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey working under terrible conditions, badly paid, with no international help and facing difficulty to pay bills or integrate.
With Islamists all around us, we decided to cross the sea to Europe and went to Izmir, on the Aegean coast.
We agreed a price with a smuggler and my brother bought knock-off life jackets but my mother was afraid and got sick so we pulled out and ended up in Istanbul hoping to find a legal way.
The French consulate was granting asylum visas, so I applied for my family, but it was almost impossible to get accepted without a host. I thought I would never find one but volunteers on Facebook responded and introduced me to an association to help.
The consulate warned of problems with Turkish police who wanted to keep educated people and traders as refugees to benefit from them and other workers to negotiate with the European Union. Indeed, police misspelt our names so we missed our flight. I booked again to reach France.
Association volunteers include British, Dutch, Portuguese and French and they helped us settle everything with a host and start the asylum process. Having fantastic people around helped restore my faith in humanity.
Since then I have been living in an isolated rural place and have been waiting for seven months to get the right to work or study. Every step is delayed until I get my refugee status.
France has given a lot of people, including economic refugees and political activists, a chance of a future.
I volunteered at Translators Without Borders to help other refugees. In the future I would like to make documentaries about the persecuted Kurds.
I know people who sailed by sea: some made it to Europe and others couldn’t; either they are stuck in Greek camps or went back to Turkey.
This spring, attempts are starting again, especially after [Turkish leader] Erdoğan and Jihadist fighters attacked Afrin [Syria, near the Turkish border].
There can be no solution unless political powers stop thinking of Syria as booty. Let what is left of Syria live in peace. A no-fly zone in Syria must be seriously and urgently applied.”