As European leaders debated how to deal with people who climb aboard overcrowded, unsafe boats in war-torn Libya in a desperate bid to reach Europe, a one-time fishing boat carefully refurbished and renamed SeaWatch set sail on Sunday from Hamburg to the Mediterranean.
It was manned by a young German crew who do not place great faith in the ability of European authorities to act quickly to stop the chain of death and human misery that continues to stream over from north Africa.
“The European Union won the Nobel prize for peace. It is disgusting they are not able to solve this problem yet,” said Ruben Neugebauer, a photographer and part of the crew of the 21 meter vessel, renamed SeaWatch, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Seawatch will patrol the waters of the Mediterranean around Malta, looking out for boats filled with asylum seekers that appear to be in distress. If they spot one, they will hand over fresh water, medical supplies, and if needed, floating islands that passengers can cling to, to wait for more formal help from authorities.
Mr. Neugebauer and his friends set up SeaWatch last year from charitable donations. Most of their funding comes from four families in the Brandenburg area, as a response to the growing crisis on Europe’s shores.
Other groups have had a similar idea. The charity Médecins Sans Frontières will sail its own 40-meter (131-foot) boat on a similar rescue mission, claiming that current search and rescue operations are not adequate.
On Saturday, some 800 people drowned when their boat capsized while sailing from Libya to Italy. Only 27 people survived. Two of them, the ship’s captain, and one other have been arrested on suspicion of being part of the human trafficking gang that organized the doomed voyage. The other 25 have been taken to Italy to get medical treatment and to apply for asylum.
The deaths were not the first of their kind, and won’t be the last. Even as politicians scrambled to try and deal with the issue on Monday, another ship with dozens of refugees crashed into the rocks off the Greek island of Rhodes, and Greek authorities suggested at least three had been killed. Two more ships sent out distress calls.
The response of European ministers, was, of course, to hold meetings. On Monday, as SeaWatch was on its way to the Mediterranean, 41 E.U. foreign and home affairs ministers gathered in Luxembourg to discuss the crisis. E.U. president Donald Rusk has called for another emergency meeting of government leaders next Thursday via the high level Council of Ministers.
“The intensity and the impact of global conflicts today are probably greater than during the Second World War.”
After Monday’s meeting, the E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said that the deaths over the weekend had finally woken European countries up to the dangers of human trafficking, and outlined a ten-point plan that she said would combat the problem.
The plan included boosting Triton, the border surveillance mission that replaced Italy’s more effective Mare Nostrum. Italy scrapped Mare Nostrum last year after complaining its European partners were not sharing the burden and Triton, which was meant to replace it, has been operating with much smaller resources. Ms. Mogherini also said the European Union will also coordinate on capturing people in smuggler boats, and consider setting up a E.U. wide resettlement program.
The plans reflect the way the debate over immigration and asylum in Europe is polarized. On one side there are those who want to focus on strengthening Europe’s borders and clamping down in the human traffickers; on the other, those like the crew behind SeaWatch, who want to address the situation in a more humane way: to rescue more boats in distress and to address the root causes of why people flee their countries. And, if they have good reason to flee, to help them settle swiftly in a safe country.
Kristalina Georgieva, the E.U. commissioner for budget and human resources, said Europe must understand why ever more people wanted to seek refuge here.
“The intensity and the impact of global conflicts today are probably greater than during the Second World War,” she told Handelsblatt.
Her stance is backed by Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi who accused the rest of Europe of ignoring the growing humanitarian crisis on its shores, and compared the current situation to the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in Srebenica two decades ago.
“Twenty years ago, we and Europe closed our eyes to Srebrenica. Today it’s not possible to close our eyes again and only commemorate these events later,” he said in a press conference Monday.
But other countries including the United Kingdom, which is close to a general election in which immigration is a major topic, have focused more on how to keep people out. The British government said it would not support search and rescue operations such as the now defunct Mare Nostrum as it believed they encouraged would-be migrants to undertake these dangerous journeys.
But it is clear that Europe cannot afford to ignore the new generation of boat people: would-be refugees willing to risk everything to seek a more secure life. It also cannot ignore the problem of having failed states such as Libya close to its borders.
Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told the CDU National Executive Committee that many of the ports in Libya are controlled by the extremist Islamic State, and suggested that European Union or the United Nations may have to consider sending a mission there.
German authorities are trying to fight back against traffickers. At the end of January, some 500 police officers stormed a set of apartments in Germany, seized fake passports and entry visas, and arrested eleven suspects. In total some 2,100 people were arrested last year by police for illegally entering the country.
Part of the problem is that it is hard to enter Europe legally. Figures show that around 284,000 immigrants arrived illegally in Europe in 2014 and this number is set to grow.
Mr. de Maizière suggests that the European Union set up welcome centers: transit areas where people can submit requests for asylum and get a prompt response. At the moment, refugees must seek asylum in the first country they land in. Under these new plans, those granted asylum could then be settled anywhere within the E.U.
This would help countries such as Germany which is one of the major recipients of refugees: around 300,000 are expected to seek asylum this year. But it would be unpopular in some countries such as the Czech Republic, that take in hardly any. European ministers must decide if and how to ask countries to take in refugees: according to their population, or economic strength. Civil rights groups also point out that these “welcome centers” could end up operating a lot like a prison.
German Human Rights Commissioner Christoph Strässer, part of the left wing SPD, also suggests issuing humanitarian visas for people from conflict regions, so they can access a European country without being accused of entering illegally.
The European Commission is currently drawing up plans for a new immigration policy, to be published in May that will deal with integration of refugees, as well as ways to solve the roots of the problem. By 2022, the European Union will spend €7 billion ($7.48 billion) to secure Europe’s external borders and help member states integrate refugees who are given permission to stay.
Any common immigration policy will run into national objections. Europe’s governments consider the ability to decide who enters their country to be a key part of their sovereignty, and are unlikely to give it up without a fight.
In the meantime private vessels like SeaWatch, which costs €60,000 to buy, and commercial ships which are bound by international law to aid those in distress at sea, will do the job of rescuing those who continue to try to sail to Europe.
“You can’t let people drown. That is the law, and it is a moral code,” said Seawatch’s Mr. Neugebauer.