The European refugee crisis is proving to be one of the biggest moral tests and political stalemates of our generation.
Our rescue ship searches the Mediterranean for stricken vessels, in the hope of stopping people from drowning.
Every day we face the same five questions. We thought we’d take the opportunity to answer some of these concerns. Because, although we don’t have the answers to world peace, we are sure that what we’re doing is saving lives.
1. “Stop picking up migrants and ferrying them to Europe”
We are not a ferry service. We do not communicate with traffickers or people smugglers. We work under the coordination of the Italian Coast Guard and respond to distress calls only if instructed by them.
Our sole mission is to save the lives of people, particularly children, who are escaping violence, persecution and extreme poverty. We save people from drowning and if we stopped, the death toll would only increase further.
This was proven in 2014 when EU rescue funding was cut, only for smugglers to use the same dangerous routes, leading to multiple horrifying shipwrecks in 2015, with up to 800 victims in just one capsizing.
2. “You’re encouraging migration”
When you cut the rescue ships, the death toll spikes, but people keep coming.
The presence of search and rescue does not mean more people will cross, it simply means those who do are more likely to survive.
This Oxford University study found crossings remained roughly the same with or without rescue vessels present. But when rescue capacity was low, deaths at sea were highest.
3. “Stop bringing terrorists to Europe”
The Italian authorities screen and register everyone we rescue, and it’s their job to manage all security-related issues. When we carry out a rescue we provide a comprehensive report of the number of people rescued. When our vessel arrives in Italy there is a second check with the Italian Coast Guard to verify these numbers.
4. “But they’re mainly adults with beards”
This is increasingly a children’s issue. The number of children taking this route rose 76% in 2016 while the number of children travelling alone more than doubled, according to the UN Refugee agency. No child should drown in search of a better future.
We work in the countries children are fleeing, like Syria and Iraq, and try to advise them of the dangers of migration along the route.
With 93% of the children rescued travelling alone, children urgently need protection as they are extremely vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and exploitation.
5. “Send them back to Libya”
Libya cannot be considered to offer a safe place. If returned to Libya, refugees and migrants are at risk of being detained, where conditions are widely seen as inhuman and people have reported being beaten, whipped and hung from trees.
We have heard countless reports of women and children suffering physical and sexual violence. Families might be forcibly sent back to countries where they’ve already fled persecution, war, rape, torture and exploitation.
By the time they reach the Mediterranean, many children will have endured unimaginable horrors, may be injured or traumatised, in need of support, which is simply not available in Libya.
So what now?
Some of the things we see and hear on board our rescue ship are unimaginably gruesome. We patch up peeling limbs that have been chemically burned from fuel spills in the dinghies.
We worry many women are victims of gang rape in Libya. We help find foster families for orphaned babies whose mothers have drowned trying to escape ISIS. We pick up dead bodies found floating at dawn. Nameless, helpless humans.
But sometimes it’s words that sting the most. The Vos Hestia team hoped that people had moved away from language like “hordes” and “cockroaches” when referring to actual human beings.
Historically, we’ve seen the same hateful use of “cockroaches” from the Nazis when referring to Jewish people, as well as on Hutu radio stations in Rwanda in the 1990s, referring to the Tutsis. Both were calling for genocide.
The only way to reduce deaths at sea is to offer safe and legal alternatives to this dangerous crossing.
The EU’s failure to step up and reduce the number of deaths at sea has meant that we, along with other humanitarian organizations, have been forced to step in to avoid further loss of life. European states must support Italy with search-and-rescue operations: saving lives should be the over-riding priority.
The Mediterranean cannot continue to be a mass unmarked grave for children. This is not what our generation wants to be remembered for.