22 681, that is the number of asylum seekers presumed drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014. The violence unravelling societies and uprooting families across the world has caused millions to seek refuge. Europe’s image as a human rights champion has been put to the test. And Europe’s limited humanitarian response to this crisis has made the Mediterranean Sea one of the deadliest. This is a time when we Europeans, who make claims of being a force for peace, motivated by human rights, need to come together to find peaceful means of solving conflict and global challenges. But what has our response been? Securing our border against those most in need.
The European Union is the most polarised it has ever been. This is driven in large part by far-right and nationalist parties that are securing an increasing number of parliamentary seats. These once marginalised extreme voices have been strengthened by 3 growing fears: cultural liberalisation, mass immigration and the perceived abandonment of national sovereignty. Rather than championing our shared values of human rights and justice, conventional political parties have been cowed by the far right into reacting to their fringe fears. Consequently, these fears have shaped Europe’s response to those most vulnerable who flee war, environmental catastrophe and persecution. Instead of focusing on saving lives at sea as is our responsibility, European policies instead aim to make the borders harder and the journeys more difficult, and thus, more dangerous.
Yet each time we outsource border control infrastructure to countries with poor human rights records, like Libya, or provide resources to build detention centres where asylum seekers experience rape and torture. We put another brick into fortress Europe and deny those escaping violence their right to safety, and often, their right to life. Rights we deny even as we claim to uphold them.
I became outraged by the cruel policies of abandonment that are supposedly enacted in our names. People are drowning in our name. Therefore, as a first responder with maritime search and rescue training, I went to the Greek island of Lesvos, which has been the entry point for over ½ million asylum seekers. I coordinated civilian rescue efforts for nearly 1 year with a team of medics and boat crews ready to respond to emergencies on land and at sea. Our team assisted 50,000 people. For many, providing little more than a smile and warm blanket was enough. Remember, asylum seekers are survivors, not merely victims. However, some also needed immediate medical care.
One particularly frightening situation still on my mind, happened during a cold winter night when we responded to a small dinghy designed for 20, but was packed with 86 people, over 20 children, many without life jackets. I remember we had assisted 85 people off the dinghy, and I was doing one last check. I nearly missed a man who had gone into hypothermic shock and was lying completely still at the base of the dinghy almost covered by water. Though he was revived, many are not.
Despite the humanitarian nature of our voluntary work, my colleagues and I were arrested. I spent 3.5 months behind bars awaiting trial, sharing a cell with convicted felons and being handcuffed to murderers. What crimes am I accused of? The most outrageous are smuggling, money laundering, being part of a criminal organisation, forgery, fraud and even espionage or spying. Despite the severity of these supposed heinous crimes, experts say the charges are baseless and amount to the criminalisation of saving lives.
At this point you may be thinking to yourself “okay, that’s kindadepressing. But what has it got to do with me?” I am afraid it has everything to do with all of us. I am not special; I am in fact quite normal. I did exactly what any of you would do. Imagine you arrived at the scene of a car crash, you see a person lying on the road. What would you check first, their pulse of their passport? If you check their pulse first you’ll have committed the exact same supposed crime I have. In fact, there have been nearly 50 prosecutions against at least 178 individuals across 13 European member states since the beginning of the crisis. I remember receiving an email of solidarity from a German-speaking pastor who was himself being criminalised because he let asylum seekers sleep on his church pews during a storm.
These prosecutions happen because of our fear driven, and polarised politics which demonise the most vulnerable. The far-right claim we must secure our borders in defence of our “European culture” of peace and justice. The irony of course is that when we criminalise help and let people drown in our oceans. We have already lost this culture of peace and justice.
By some, I am labelled a criminal. What I did was wrong and I deserve imprisonment or worse. Others call me a hero, what I did is to be celebrated. Both are false. I am neither a criminal nor a hero. Describing the things I did as criminal or heroic are dangerous for precisely the same reason. Both imply that helping someone in distress is somehow abnormal. The truth of course is that offering help is the most normal thing to do.