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Rescue NGOs in need of help

Zivile Raskauskaite
April 19, 2017

Nearly 9,000 refugees were rescued after they tried crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats over the weekend. NGOs played a big role in saving their lives, but want more support from governmental agencies.

Privates deutsches Rettungsschiff "Iuventa" auf Mittelmeer in Seenot
Image: picture-alliance /dpa/IUVENTA Jugend Rettet e.V.

A calm sea and better spring weather encouraged thousands of people to cross the Mediterranean Sea leaving behind wars, prosecution and poverty. Over the Easter weekend, European frontier coast guards and NGOs rescued 8,360 people from drowning.

Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR tweeted that "rescuers worked incessantly" over the weekend to save the migrants, mainly from Nigeria, Senegal and some from Bangladesh. Eight migrants, including a pregnant woman, did not survive the crossing. Those rescued were transferred to ships sailing to southern Italy.

The lack of legal routes into Europe is forcing people to trust smugglers with their lives. "It is obvious that better spring weather has encouraged smugglers to take people from their detention centers," International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Leonard Doyle said, adding, "The smugglers have clearly taken them to sea and pushed them out in the hope and belief that they would be rescued."

The IOM said that the migrants were among an estimated 20,000 held by criminal gangs in irregular detention centers in Libya. These people paid smugglers to board the overcrowded boats - often just inflated rubber vessels that could not cross the Mediterranean - in the hope of starting a new life in Europe.

Infografik gestorbene Flüchtlinge Mittelmeer 2015 und 2016 ENG

NGOs patrolling the Mediterranean

More than 35 vessels, including private charity boats, the European Union border agency Frontex, the Italian and Libyan coast guards and 12 merchant ships joined forces to prevent the loss of life at sea over Easter.

Non-governmental organizations included the Maltese group, Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), which started operating in 2014. Until now, the group has rescued 30,000 refugees traveling the deadly Mediterranean route to come to Europe.

Other rescue organizations working over the weekend included German NGOs Sea Watch, Sea Eye, Jugend Rettet, Spanish NGO Pro-Activa Open Arms and other groups like Save the Children and SOS Mediterranee.  All these groups usually conduct rescues between 20 to 50 kilometers off the coast of Libya upon authorization of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).

Migrants off the coast of Libya being rescued by MOAS crew
Migrants off the coast of Libya being rescued by MOAS crewImage: Reuters/D. Zammit Lupi

Seeing the need of support to people fleeing atrocities NGOs function in two different models. Organizations like MOAS or SOS-Mediterranee have larger vessels and are thus able to conduct fully fledged rescue operations. They rescue migrants and bring them to Italian ports. Smaller NGOs, such as Sea Watch or Pro-Activa Open Arms, focus more on rescuing, distributing life jackets and emergency medical care while waiting for a larger ship to take migrants to an Italian port.

NGOs under pressure

The Mediterranean has been dubbed a symbol of European isolation policy. The deadly migration route is a risky choice of people trying to reach Europe through the sea. Despite the danger to human lives, there is no state-run rescue program and the main focus lies on securing borders and combating human trafficking.

Most NGOs mitigating the loss of life at sea are funded primarily through small donations. The capacities of the NGO defines its expenses. SOS Mediterranee, a European organization for the rescue of people in distress in the Mediterranean, spends around 11,000 euros per day for a rescue operation and invites people to donate to support its activities.

Open Arms, a smaller NGO helping migrants, uses hashtag #HelpOpenArms to foster their crowdfunding campaign. The group spends around 5,453 euros for one day at sea. Most of this amount is used for energy resources.

However, funding is still too low - a big reason why these organizations are not able to save many people from dying. Speaking to German state broadcaster "Bayerische Rundfunk,"   Captain of the private rescue ship Sea Eye said,  "At the moment, we unfortunately have very little support from the state; too little, to save enough lives."

Over the weekend, both Sea Eye and Luventa, a ship belonging to the German NGO "Jugend Rettet" were overloaded while trying to rescue people from drowning. Both ships were forced to send distress signals, asking for help from other vessels in the vicinity.

NGO ships patrolling the Mediterranean play an important role in helping people stuck at sea. At least 900 migrants have died or have gone missing while attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean so far this year. 97 went missing in the latest incidents between Thursday and Sunday.