Humanitarian Crisis

Saviors at Sea

sea watch dpa
The Sea-Watch rescue ship is a family-run initiative, funded by private donations.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The E.U.’s Triton sea patrol is overwhelmed with the numbers of refugees adrift in the Mediterranean, as are islands like Lampedusa and Lesbos where the people are taken after they are rescued.

  • Facts


    • Thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe from troubled parts of Africa and the Middle East have perished in the Mediterranean in recent years.
    • Critics say European attempts to stem the crisis and its human-trafficking component have been largely ineffective.
    • Sea-Watch is a privately-funded initiative from several families from the German state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin.
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Ingo Werth returned home to Hamburg from the Mediterranean a short while ago. It felt strange to be back. At sea, he had slept only three or four hours a night and was always on alert.

Mr. Werth, a mechanic and auto-repair shop owner, had spent two weeks as the volunteer captain of the Sea-Watch, a private German rescue ship.

He and his crew crisscrossed the waters off Libya in search of people trying to reach Europe.

The Sea-Watch rescued a total of 587 refugees from six overcrowded rubber boats within six days.

The ship’s volunteers included three doctors and three other crew members.

Back in Hamburg, Mr. Werth, 56, stood among jacked-up cars amid the smell of motor oil and the roar of running engines.  “I feel like I’m still on the Mediterranean,” he yelled to make himself heard over the noise. “It was one of the most intense times in my life.”

Mr. Werth and the Sea-Watch crew used binoculars to spot four of the refugee boats. Almost always, the motors on the rubber dinghies had stopped working. One boat contained many wounded passengers. Four had broken wrists, one a broken arm, another a broken hip. The smugglers had bound the passengers with wire straps before taking them to the north African beach where they departed, the refugees recounted.

Refugees from Mali recounted that they had been chased through the streets and pelted with stones. In supermarkets, people refused to let them buy anything.

One man was unconscious in the rubber boat, which was already filled with water. The crew took him on board. A doctor diagnosed internal bleeding, probably because of the man had been kicked. The refugee had been in a Libyan prison. Mr. Werth doesn’t know if he survived.

“The 105 people on board would have drowned if we hadn’t been there,” Mr. Werth said.

The Sea-Watch crew helped the refugees onto floating rubber rescue platforms ― and waited. Since there was no room for more people on board the 69-foot steel cutter Sea-Watch, Mr. Werth called the Italian sea-rescue coordination center in Rome and asked if there was a ship nearby that could take the refugees on board.

Six hours later, the coast guard arrived. During that time, Mr. Werth and his crew searched the radar for other ships – to no avail.

“Refugees told us that they had left Libya together with other rubber boats,” he said. “But where did these other boats end up? We didn’t find them. And there weren’t any other rescue ships in the area.”

Through June of this year, 1,900 sea-going refugees have died, according to the Italian coast guard. “The number is certainly many times higher than that,” Mr. Werth said. The Red Crescent aid organization reports that corpses of Africans have been washing up on Libyan beaches on a regular basis.

Mr. Werth acknowledged that everyday life in Germany sometimes distresses him. His nerves are frayed. It irritates him when someone makes a huge deal about something trivial. A customer recently described it as a “catastrophe” that car had broken down and he had to take the bus. Mr. Werth angrily told him that genuine catastrophes occur in the Mediterranean, where people risk their lives daily only because they want to live in peace and without hunger, only because Europe offers them no possibility of arriving legally. The customer looked at him in confusion.


Ingo Werth dpa
Hamburg resident and volunteer captain Ingo Werth has experienced the refugee crisis first hand. Source: dpa


“I know that life has to go on as usual,” Mr. Werth said. He has come to an understanding with his wife that he is not allowed to talk about Sea-Watch at certain times, like while cooking and eating.

At his office desk, Mr. Werth looked at his computer. A message popped up: “Unmaneuverable, overcrowded rubber boat ahead, more than 100 persons on board, at least two young children. Our dinghy and the freighter Shaya are already at the scene.”

The e-mail comes from on board the Sea-Watch. “It’s no easy task to bring the refugees onto the freighter,” Mr. Werth said. At the end of April, for example, 850 people died when their boat collided with the hull of a rescuing freighter, broke apart and capsized.

Just this Monday, ships from the European Union’s border-patrol mission Triton rescued 1,800 refugees and took 15 corpses on board.

In spring this year, Mr. Werth came across a newspaper article about the Sea-Watch project and immediately wrote an application: “I am a captain and machinist and I can cook. Pick what you want. The main thing is that I be allowed to participate.”

Then he went to the harbor city of Hamburg’s Harburg district and looked at the more than 100-year-old steel cutter that four supporters of the Sea-Watch project were refitting. The sight of the ship electrified him, he said.

A few days later, he got a telephone call from Harald Höppner, the founder of the Sea-Watch project. Mr. Werth was assigned the task of ordering replacement parts and other technical material for the cutter and sending the supplies to the ship wherever it happened to be.

“When I agreed, Harald explained to me that if I got involved with Sea-Watch, I could expect calls also on Saturday evening and Sunday morning,” Mr. Werth said. From then on, he felt like he was in an “absolutely positive and inspiring” undertow that drew him deeper and deeper into the project.

Even today, he talks via telephone several times daily with other Sea-Watch activists, organizes material and supplies and sends them to the Italian island of Lampedusa. He is also a member of the Sea-Watch Association that Mr. Höppner set up in June.

Mr. Werth has run marathons in Siberia and the Sahara and crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat. He has a history of acting on his beliefs. After high school, he traveled through South America and met coffee growers who told how they were exploited by estate owners. Since then, he has lived caffeine-free. He has participated in a “Run Against Nazis” around Hamburg’s Alster Lake and he refuses to do business at his repair shop with people involved in the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which advocates a restrictive immigration policy.

For two years, he has been helping 12 asylum seekers from the west African country of Mali. He met them one evening, when they were standing outside a youth club in the Bergedorf district of Hamburg. They had fled from a refugee center in the east-central state of Saxony-Anhalt. They said they had been chased through the streets there and pelted with stones. In supermarkets, people at the cash tills refused to allow them to purchase anything.

Together with friends, Mr. Werth looked for apartments for the men and hosted three of them himself. He has a photo of two of them on his desk. “They are so happy that Sea-Watch exists,” he said. “The path across the Mediterranean was traumatic for them. They thought they wouldn’t make it.”

“One of the men said, 'Before you take us back to Libya, we would rather die right here and now on the ocean.'”

Ingo Werth, Volunteer captain, Sea-Watch

Mr. Werth well remembers July 5. On that day, he and his crew left the harbor of the Italian island of Lampedusa for the first time. They didn’t really expect to encounter refugees. The crew that had patrolled the waters off Libya before them ― a new group of volunteers works on the ship every two weeks― had not come across a single boat.

Mr. Höppner, who had participated in the first voyage, told Mr. Werth before his crew got underway that a good job was being done by the coast guard as well as the private rescue boats of the Doctors Without Borders humanitarian group and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a private initiative from Malta. The sea-rescue coordination center and the association Watch the Med, which also receives calls for assistance, had reported several emergencies during each day of the first mission. But the ships of the coast guard or freighters were always at the scene more quickly.

Three days later, on July 8, Mr. Werth was sitting on the Sea-Watch’s bridge when the radio crackled: “There is a rubber boat with many people on starboard.” It was the voice of a female doctor who had been on the upper deck on lookout since sunrise. She reported that the 26-foot-long boat was overcrowded but seemed to be stable. She estimated 100 people were on board.

The crew reported the boat sighting to the sea-rescue coordination center in Rome and explained that Sea-Watch could provide first aid but was unable to take anyone on board. All crew members put on life jackets and safety helmets, and the doctors shouldered their backpacks. Everyone crowded into a small room to discuss the mission. The plan was to lower a Sea-Watch dinghy into the water so the doctors could reach the refugees. The Sea-Watch itself would maintain a safe distance away so the refugees didn’t think the ship was going to take them aboard. The refugees were all very nervous because they feared the rescuers were from the Libyan coast guard.

Mr. Werth recalled: “One of the men said, ‘Before you take us back to Libya, we would rather die right here and now on the ocean.’” The doctors showed their German passports, calmed the refugees and distributed life jackets. They waited together for an hour and a half in the extreme midday heat for the arrival of the Bourbon Argos, a Doctors Without Borders ship that was nearby.

“Only that first time did the rescue go so easily. Afterwards, we often had to wait for hours,” Mr. Werth said. He was always worried that something could happen, a boat could sink, a refugee could slide off-board or collapse in the heat.

“The European Union, the German government, the chancellor ― they all claim to be doing something against how people are dying in the Mediterranean,” Mr. Werth said. “But the Triton ships and the frigates of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) were all far away from where people were in distress at sea. They didn’t support us in a single mission.”

So Mr. Werth intends to collect donations ― during his mission alone, he and the team used rescue material worth €6,000 (or $6,551). Contributions would make it possible for the Sea-Watch Association to purchase a new, more stable ship with fewer flaws.

“And if it’s necessary, I’ll spend the entire summer next year off the coast of Libya,” he said.

Video: Sea-Watch’s third rescue mission, July 11, 2015.
This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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