The Aquarius’ daily work to save people’s lives – SOS MEDITERRANEE’s mission is to restore humantity at sea and on land

Interview with Verena Papke, Director General, SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany, Berlin

The interview was conducted by Nannette Cazaubon

“We have to understand that people do not run towards something or a particular place, but that they flee from something.” – Verena Papke

In the last 4 years at least 15,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea. 80% of migrants attempting this dangerous journey on small boats flee the chaos in Libya in the hope of reaching the coasts of Italy. The rescue ship “Aquarius” – operated since February 2016 by SOS MEDITERRANEE, together with Médecins sans Frontières – has saved close to 30,000 lives in more than 230 rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean. Having become a matter of controversy
in the European discussion on how the situation in the Mediterranean could be managed, the Aquarius is currently blocked in the harbor of Marseille after the Panama Maritime Authorities revoked the registration of the ship. We wanted to learn more about this NGO and the people behind it. Verena Papke, General Director of SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany gave us insights of the team’s daily work and battle.

The European: Ms Papke, you are the Director General of SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany, could you please briefly present your maritime and humanitarian organisation to our readers?

Verena Papke: Let me start at the beginning: SOS MEDITERRANEE was founded in 2015 by a group of professional European seafarers and humanitarians in response to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the Central Mediterranean. At that time, the Italian search and rescue programme “Mare Nostrum” was terminated after European Member States declined to support it, and the result was an increase of deaths at sea. As seafarers and humanitarians, but also as European citizens, we could not stand by and watch men, women and children drown. We chartered a ship, the “Aquarius”, 77m long and with a rescue capacity of more than 500 people – and launched a search-andrescue mission in international waters off the Libyan coast.

The European: Could you tell us more about the people working aboard the Aquarius?

Verena Papke: Three teams work aboard the Aquarius: the marine crew (Captain, engineers etc.), the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescue team made up of professionals with backgrounds in navigation, lifeguarding and emergency response, and the medical team of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who is a partner of SOS MEDITERRANEE since 2015. The search-and-rescue coordinator, who usually has a professional background in navigation, is responsible for the coordination of a rescue. S/he coordinates with all team members on the Aquarius and is in constant contact with the responsible maritime authorities, to receive instructions and to keep them updated about our on-going operations.

The European: Could you describe in more detail what normally happens during a rescue mission?

Verena Papke: Usually, the Aquarius either receives a distress call from the relevant maritime authorities or our rescue team spots a boat in distress. At sea, the rescue team is on watch 24 hours a day, taking shifts, and monitoring the horizon with binoculars, looking for boats in distress. The rubber boats are so small that they can barely be spotted on the boat’s radar. Once we are close to a boat in distress, we launch our smaller rescue boats, approach the boat in distress, establish first contact through our cultural mediator and then distribute life jackets.

The European: I guess that this is a delicate moment…

Verena Papke: …yes, as people become agitated when they see us. They want to get off the small dinghy and out of this dangerous situation as fast as possible. Our primary aim, therefore, is to stabilise the situation by evacuating women, children and injured people first. Then our small rescue boats shuttle everyone to the Aquarius, where people receive primary care. In the case of medical emergencies, there is a clinic on board, where MSF’s medical team treats patients. From time to time, we need to request a medical evacuation, where patients need immediate care on land.

The European: What happens next with these rescued people?

Verena Papke: According to international maritime law, a rescue is only completed once the survivors are delivered to a safe place, where their lives are no longer threatened and where their basic human needs and rights can be met. This is crucial to understanding why we as a professional rescue organisation cannot stop after rescuing people from drowning, but are obliged to bring them to safety. For two and a half years, the place of safety was Italy, as per instruction from the Italian authorities that were coordinating all of our operations. However, in recent months, there has been widespread confusion over the assignment of a safe port since Italy has now also closed its ports to rescue ships. It seems that the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake.

The European: In May 2017, a SOS Méditerranée rescue mission was interrupted by individuals purporting to be Libyan coast guard members firing shots. What happened that day?

Verena Papke: I was on board the Aquarius that day. It was around noon. We were around 14 nautical miles from the Libyan coast and, following instructions from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, we had assisted a number of boats in distress. Suddenly, a boat armed with four stationary machine guns and identified as belonging to the Libyan Coast Guard approached at high speed, creating large waves and interrupting the on-going rescue. Suddenly, the guards started firing in the air and into the water, they boarded one of the boats in distress and intimidated the people on board who started panicking and around 60 of them jumped into the water. Luckily, we had handed out the life jackets just minutes before and were able to pull everyone out of the water with our bare hands.

The European: What were your thoughts during this incident?

Verena Papke: While the Libyan Coast Guard fired the machine guns, we were told to lie down on deck. We were looking at each other and could not believe what was happening. Was the Libyan Coast Guard, the same Coast Guard that is trained and financed by EU states, really firing gunshots in the middle of a rescue operation? Their aggressive behaviour seriously endangered the lives of the rescued people and our crew. It was thanks to our professional team that no one died that day and that by the end of the day we rescued 1.004 people – more than ever before.

The European: The European Union decided in 2017 to pursue a reinforcement strategy of Libyan coast guards who now operate in international waters. How did you experience this development at sea?

Verena Papke: We are a maritime-humanitarian organisation that is responding to a humanitarian need in the Central Mediterranean. Our role is not to speculate on the strategy and motives of the European Union. But the incident I just described is not an exception. SOS MEDITERRANEE, and other search-and-rescue organisations, have faced similar incidents in the past. According to maritime law, a coastal state has to coordinate all rescues within its search and rescue area, which includes international waters. In June 2018, Italy handed the coordination of rescues in international waters off the Libyan coast to the Libyan authorities. In theory, they are now in charge of coordination and of assigning a place of safety for survivors to disembark. But we know that the Libyan Coast Guard is not adequately trained, they do not have enough ships to cover the whole area and they lack the necessary equipment to perform rescues in a professional and efficient manner.

The European: In your eyes, can Lybia be considered as a place of safety to disembark survivors?

Verena Papke: No, it can’t. The country is torn between different governments, militia and ISIS. No European state vessel or civil rescue ship is allowed to bring rescued people back to Libya. What we have observed since last summer, however, is that Libyan Coast Guard units increasingly intercept boats and return people to Libya, the same place they fled in the first place. They are often returned to detention centres – places known for human rights abuses. From the testimonies that we collect aboard our rescue vessel, as well as from UN and other reports, we know that the conditions inside these centres are rife with abuse and violence.

The European: The context of search and rescue interventions in the Central Mediterranean seems to have become increasingly complicated, and in 2018 the Aquarius eventually became the only non-governmental rescue ship in those waters. Can you explain the reasons for this?

Verena Papke: It is true that the conditions for carrying out rescue operations have changed dramatically in recent months. Since European Member States made the deliberate choice to close their ports to rescue ships, we have seen that captains of commercial and other vessels are increasingly unwilling to respond to boats in distress due to a very high and real risk of being stranded out at sea and being denied a port of safety.

The European: What consequences does this have for the situation in the Mediterranean?

Verena Papke: As I said, the EU’s support of the Libyan Coast Guard has resulted in increased interceptions and illegal returns to Libya. In October, returns to Libya outnumbered arrivals to Italy for the first time. But this strategy only works in combination with the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance at sea. As civil society’s eyes and ears at sea, SOS MEDITERRANEE and other NGOs have testified about the situation at sea over the past 21/2 years. We gave a voice to the people who undertook the dangerous crossing and we have consistently denounced human rights violations whenever we witnessed them. Almost 200 journalists from all around the world have covered our vital work. With NGO ships currently prevented from operating, there are no eyes to witness what is now happening, nor ears to listen to the stories of men, women and children.

The European: What do you respond to those who argue that saving lives on this dangerous migratory route represents a “pull factor” encouraging
migrants and refugees to attempt the journey across the Mediterranean?

Verena Papke: First of all, saving lives is not an option but a moral and legal obligation. Under international maritime law, all ships in the area must assist immediately when a boat is in distress. And we have to understand that people do not run towards something or a particular place, but that they flee from something. In the case of Libya it is widespread violence, arbitrary detention, forced labour, sexual violence and exploitation. Aboard the Aquarius, we see the bullet wounds and signs of torture all across people’s bodies. We hear the stories of young women being raped on a daily basis, and the stories of young men whose sisters were raped and killed in front of their eyes. People simply have no other option than to escape. The significant impact that sea rescue actually has is to decrease the number of deaths, not influence the number of people that flee. This is also documented by recent academic studies.

The European: What do you think would help improve the understanding of why people risk their lives by crossing the Central Mediterranean?

Verena Papke: When we talk about migration in Europe, we only talk about numbers. Numbers of arrivals, of deaths. But when the narrative is limited to numbers and figures, the people behind these statistics disappear. We at SOS MEDITERRANEE try our best to show the human face of migration. Hate speech has not only discredited the work of search-and-rescue organisations but it has also silenced the men, women and children who risk their lives at sea. Our mission is not limited to sea rescue. Aboard the Aquarius we protect rescued people and we testify to the realities they face at sea and during their flight.

The European: Is there a European long-term solution that could help saving lives to be done in a humanitarian and efficient way? What do you expect from the EU?

Verena Papke: What is currently most needed is a collaborative and predictable European approach to reception and distribution of people rescued at sea. If European states do not succeed in creating sustainable solutions based on international law, many more people are going to die. This will be the beginning of the end of the European project. In the long run, the EU must acknowledge its responsibilities and fill the humanitarian vacuum it has left in the Central Mediterranean. This means providing adequate search
and rescue capacities. In the meantime, we ask European governments to create a joint and predictable European approach to sea rescue and to actively support search and rescue organisations in providing humanitarian assistance at sea, instead of criminalising them.

The European: Recently, the Aquarius lost its flag when the Panama Maritime Authority revoked the registration of the ship, saying that they had come under economic and
political pressure from the Italian government. Is this the end of the story?

Verena Papke: This is just the latest in a line of attempts aimed at preventing the Aquarius from saving lives and documenting the humanitarian tragedy that continues on Europe’s doorstep. After this happened, we registered under the Liberian flag. But this is only a temporary solution, as this flag does not allow us to continue our search and rescue activities. Therefore, together with MSF, we are urgently looking for a new flag, to allow the Aquarius to continue its mission.

The European: You received a lot of support from European citizens…

Verena Papke: …yes, to urge European governments to support a new flag for the Aquarius, SOS MEDITERRANEE published an online petition that has been signed by more than 260.000 people across Europe. This shows that SOS MEDITERRANEE is not only a European organisation but a movement of citizens who came together because they cannot and do not want to accept that people die on Europe’s doorstep.

The European: Ms Papke, if all legal remedies were exhausted and your ship condemned to stay in port, would you give up or resist?

Verena Papke: As I said before, saving lives is not an option but a moral and legal obligation. SOS MEDITERRANEE will continue its mission at sea and on land as long as people have to risk their lives on unseaworthy boats to seek protection. The humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean is on-going, whether the media reports it or not. Every person dying at sea is one too many. SOS MEDITERRANEE will continue to defend humanity – be it at sea or on land.

The European: Ms Papke, let me thank you for these striking insights you have given us on the work of your NGO and the situation in the Mediterranean.

SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European organisation working in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières. Their teams in Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland jointly finance and operate the rescue ship Aquarius in international waters off the Libyan coast since February 2016. 99% of this charitable organisation is financed through private donations, including private individuals, humanitarian organisations and corporations. The remaining 1% stems from public funds.


Verena Papke
a political scientist and social geographer, is the managing director of SOS MEDITERRANEE. In summer 2015, Verena Papke met Klaus Vogel, the co-founder of SOS MEDITERRANEE, and since then has she been working full-time for this NGO, initially in Communications and, since 2017, as Managing Director. In May 2017, Ms Papke took part in several rescue missions on board the Aquarius.


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