By InfoMigrants, Patrizio Nissirio.
Mediterranea is a mission that aims above all to show solidarity with migrants braving the Mediterranean and against European governments’ policies towards them. The Mare Jonio ship, the flagship of the project, and its crew are nevertheless prepared to save human lives as well. InfoMigrants joined them during a training exercise.
The sea is raging out beyond the quay in Palermo port, with Sicily’s mild climate seemingly lashed away by the icy wind. The volunteers of Mediterranea pay scant attention, however, focused as they are on preparing to sail south of the island to areas where boats carrying migrants venture into areas under the responsibility of Italy, Malta, and Tunisia.
Private migrant rescue vessels in the Mediterranean are now less numerous than they were in recent years. When they pick up migrants, they often find themselves bounced back and forth between the various countries deemed responsible for them: a situation that Mediterranea says is intolerable.
“The war on NGOs’ led to the project”, says Caccia.
Mediterranea’s Saving Humans project is the brainchild of Beppe Caccia and Luca Casarini, both well-known for their longstanding activism within the Italian left. Caccia spoke to Infomigrants about how the project began. “We decided to take action in late June 2018, faced with the ‘war’ that several governments were waging on NGOs (working to save migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, Ed.). But we did this in a discrete manner since a public announcement would have led to polemics,” he said.
Various people and bodies joined the project in the following months, such as MoltiVolti, a lively restaurant and co-working space in Palermo’s Ballarò area, where many migrants from the nearby SPRAR asylum seekers assistance center find work and a place to socialize.
Mediterranea has also received support from many cities that have sided against the anti-migration policies of the Italian government: Palermo, Naples, and Milan as well as Barcelona and Amsterdam. Then there is also the Ya Basta! Organization of Bologna and the national branch of ARCI, as well as the ‘counterinformation’ website iDiavoli.
Caccia noted that “fundraising activities then began and in July we had enough money to buy the ship Mare Ionio, a tugboat built in 1972.” He noted that the purchase was necessary since ”those we contacted to rent one were afraid of political retaliation against them and fallout on their businesses. The purchase was made possible mostly by Banca Etica and the fact that some MPs acted as guarantors for credit lines.”
Getting ready for rescues at a difficult time.
The three days in Palermo begin with a practical exercise in Marina di Cinisi, not far from the Falcone e Borsellino airport. The 35 members of the Mediterranea rescue team listen as Mark, a Brit working with the Sea Watch NGO, explains how to appear friendly to the migrants onboard, how to use the right tone of voice and never yell, how to control facial expressions, and to never accept rash acts. “If someone jumps into the water because they want to be saved first, throw them a life jacket but do not pull them up first,” the instructor said.
We are against the silent massacre, says Casarini.
Luca Casarini claims that “a silent massacre” is being committed in the Mediterranean Sea. “We gathered this from the silence of the Navtex system, the service that provides weather alerts, as well as the rescue calls to ships. From October to December there was an enormous silence. Obviously, there are boats in distress but we don’t know anything about them anymore. This is shown by the fact that even though journeys in the central Mediterranean have been reduced, the percentage of deaths in relation to this number has risen.”
Casarini explains this is because the authorities now manage the search and rescue areas differently. “They should cooperate to increase safety levels but now they only look at their own work.” Migrant boat wrecks have become a constant, Casarini says. “In this way, you make those that fled Libyan detention camps drown, and this is a violation of the law of the sea and of international law,” he said.
“Moral disobedience, civil obedience”
The training of volunteers for Mediterranea – at the technical and legal levels – occurs in MoltiVolti in the Palermo Ballarò area. Casarini said that Mare Jonio and the Raj sailboat that flanks it will patrol the waters close to one another, a few miles away from each other at the most. Sighting boats in distress has been found to work better this way, using both binoculars and alert systems, Casarini explains.
Alessandra Sciurba, head of the Mediterranea legal team, explained their philosophy. “By practicing civil obedience, we are actually practicing moral disobedience. This is because we comply strictly with the law of the sea. Governments are the ones breaking it. This is why we cooperate with other NGO ships operating in the Mediterranean and why we collect material to take to the European Court of Human Rights.”
“When we find out that a boat is in distress, we follow the procedure closely in notifying the various national authorities.” Sciurba underscores that Mediterranea’s “became necessary when we realized that a basic rule was no longer a given: to save those at risk of drowning. We understood that we needed to start over from the ground up, since this rule stopped being taken for granted by many.” The team of Mediterranea, she says, will thus “be at sea to bear witness, coordinate, and – if needed – save human lives.”
Onboard the Mare Jonio.
The ship hums with activity. At the stern, a container has been mounted that is meant to host anyone rescued. Calculations are made about how many it can hold, then the equipment of the small cabin where the infirmary will be is outlined. It is explained that the migrants will have to take a shower, since many arrive covered in petrol after the crossing.
Also, the volunteers must know how to frisk the ‘guests’ (that’s the only term used), because someone could be carrying a weapon, and that’s not tolerable onboard.
And then the hammering and welding begin. All the volunteers do their part under the watchful eye of seven professional sailors who ensure that the sailing will be safe. A total of 11 people will be onboard for the mission: the sailors and four volunteers. The Mare Jonio is an old but sturdy vessel, Caccia said, and “all the instruments are new.”
“We are at sea to remember that there are people risking their lives and dying in the attempt to reach Europe,” he stresses. “We want to be ready to save as many as possible. Onboard there is a great deal of enthusiasm, determination, and the desire to help. And even outside this group, we receive hundreds of emails from people who ask us how they can help. And this alone is an exceptional achievement.”
Photo: Marta Buso