Search and rescue in 2019: “appalling results”

Civil society representatives send SOS to rescue those in distress at sea / Protestant church wants to send a ship

“There is still no solution in sight and policy-making has continually failed”: this is the conclusion reached by representatives of rescue and relief agencies, municipalities, the SEEBRÜCKE (sea bridge) movement and the Evangelical Church in Germany with respect to the current situation in Libya and on the Mediterranean. Together they called on the German federal government and all political leaders in the European Union to lose no time in establishing a Europe-wide distribution mechanism for refugees rescued in the Mediterranean and to bring people arbitrarily detained in Libya to safety. 

Christoph Hey, a recent project leader for Médecins sans Frontières in Libya, reported that the situation he had witnessed in the internment camps was “appalling”. The food was inadequate and the hygienic conditions unbearable. The inmates, including children, were “jammed together and could often not go outside for days on end”. The NGO calls for the disbanding of all internment camps and an end to EU support for the Libyan coastguard that takes refugees back to Libya, in contravention of international law.

Barbara Held, operations manager for the Sea-Eye organisation, stated from the angle of civil search and rescue: “The people fleeing from Libya have no other choice but to venture on the journey across the Mediterranean to reach safety. They put themselves in a very dangerous situation on overcrowded boats. But the hope of surviving is greater than the prospect of never escaping from the trap of the Libyan internment camps. We have a duty to save lives! That means: both from the humanitarian angle and that of applicable law of the sea, people in distress must be assisted without any ifs and buts. The haggling about human life must cease. Vague declarations of intent are no use to the people fleeing as we speak. Keeping them captive for weeks on rescue ships under undignified circumstances is inhuman. The responsibility does not just lie with Italy and Malta but with the whole of Europe.”

Tareq Alaows, a representative of the SEEBRÜCKE movement, calls for an immediate end to the European policy of closed borders and for a massive effort to achieve safe passages: “Everyone must have the right to freedom of movement and to come to Europe safely and legally. Those rescued from distress at sea should all be taken immediately to a safe haven. There are over 90 municipalities willing to receive additional refugees in Germany alone.”

Potsdam‘s lord mayor Mike Schubert points to the great readiness to help on the part of cities and smaller towns: “Potsdam is one of the now over 90 municipalities in the safe havens network that are calling for the refugees to be treated with dignity. We express our solidarity with the SEEBRÜCKE initiative and declare our readiness to receive additional persons rescued from distress at sea. The Potsdam Statement, drawn up jointly with the first signatory cities, underlines the desire of the welcoming municipalities to stop the deaths at the borders of Europe and to end the humanitarian disaster on the Mediterranean without further ado. Making this commitment is a sign of humanity.”

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), announced that the EKD would join a broad social coalition in sending an additional vessel to rescue people from drowning in the Mediterranean. “We want to send a ship. The EKD Council decided at its last meeting to found an association in which churches, institutions and activists want to equip another ship for search and rescue as soon as possible. For decades the church and its diaconal agencies have, in the context of their development and humanitarian activities, contributed every day to saving needy people all over the world. We will support civilian search and rescue to the best of our ability as long as human beings seeking protection continue to drown in the Mediterranean and governments fail to act.”

The central demands of all organisations involved are:

  1. An emergency plan for boat refugees: member states willing to receive them must, on a solidarity basis, take charge of refugees rescued from distress at sea or stranded in the EU’s neighbouring states around the Mediterranean.
  2. Safe havens: Many German cities and municipalities have declared their readiness to receive refugees. A way must be found for them to accept more refugees on a voluntary basis.
  3. No returns to Libya: refugees in Libya are exposed to the risk of systematic torture, slavery and violence. All support and training of the ‘Libyan coastguard’ must be stopped. The EU and Germany must respect and implement the non-refoulement principle as an obligation under international law.

Berlin, 12 September 2019

EKD Press Office
Carsten Splitt