Nathalie Suthor on Her Sea Rescue Journey Through the Mediterranean

Nathalie Suthor, an investigative journalist from Germany who set off on her first sea rescue mission in 2016, and the impact five years later.


Interview by Sarah Wei and Faye Bradley.


This is the uncut conversation from our feature on ‘Sea Rescue in the South of Europe’ coming out 2022 in print.

Image Courtesy of SARAH Seenotrettung (via Instagram)


Paradigm Haus: What has your experience been so far covering the refugee crisis and what have you learned?


Nathalie Suthor: It was 2016 when a lot of people tried to reach Europe on boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The refugee crisis was in every newspaper, which was a big topic. There was also a heated discussion in Germany. Some people were concerned that there were too many refugees, while others said we should help the refugees instead of watching them die. Many NGOs were founded during that time and went into the Mediterranean sea to rescue the people.


I joined in 2017 on one mission— the NGO was Jugend Rettetand and the boat was called Iuventa. The boat usually started in Malta and traveled close to the Libyan coastline, where they patrolled. We were there all the time to look for refugee boats that were usually small wooden boats or inflated rubber boats. It was traumatic for me, especially as a mother, because after staying there for about a week, we suddenly found some boats carrying mothers and their young children on the Mediterranean sea. It was unbelievable for me when I realized how dangerous the Mediterranean sea could be. I wondered how tough the situation was for people who went on a boat with their children and tried to reach a better life.


Those NGOs had been working there for one and a half years. Mostly they would go abroad to Italy since most of the refugees came from Turkey to Greece and then crossed the Mediterranean sea to Italy. However, it also caused a European problem that many European countries regarded the problem was only for Italy rather than themselves. There are many refugee camps in Italy now that are a severe problem, but other European countries don't care or try to find a solution for it.


Additionally, Europe made a deal with Libya that they paid the coast guard money to let them stop the rescue boats to leave Libya. Right now, the situation on the Libyan coast is in big trouble because the Libyan coast guards try to block NGOs to rescue the refugees' boats. Italy also gave a pushback. They tried to use some reasons to not allow the boats to leave the harbor, such as too many life vests.


Many people in Europe also discussed the reasons for the rising refugee crisis, which was in my documentary as well. There were some political and historical reasons about how Europe treated Africa in the past to make them have nothing now, so people tried to search for a better life somewhere else. There were also wars between warlords in their countries. The traffickers made money by bringing the people on the boats to Europe. However, when the refugees arrived in Europe, they would be stuck in camps and have no chance to start a better life. Europe hasn't released a solution because other countries think Germany and Netherlands took too many refugees. The situation is very bad now.

Nathalie Suthor (right) speaks about her documentary 34 Grad, Image Courtesy of ZDF (via zdf.de)


Now, some refugees are trying to take the new route to reach the Canary Islands, which started in autumn last year. They also tried to reach Europe through this route in the past, but it was extremely dangerous and difficult. Refugees could use small wooden boats on the Atlantic Ocean to travel to those small islands from Africa, which was time-consuming. Once, we found hundreds of people were stuck on a boat for a week. They wouldn’t know what would happen. Water, food, and fuel might not be enough. Therefore, that was the reason why I joined the second mission, where I met Riley. We tried to find out about the route, who those people were, and where they came from, and so on.


PH: Where were most of these routes going through in the Mediterranean?


NS: Yes, the first route was across Turkey to Greece, but Europe agreed with Turkey to stop this route. Then, people tried to cross the Mediterranean. Mostly, they left from Libya, where there were many NGOs that were always crossing the Libyan coast. However, afterwards, a big discussion came up about the push and pull factors in Germany and Europe. The traffickers found the NGO boats and they made refugees know the NGOs would take them to Europe, so more and more people came because they thought it was a safe way to go. That's one of the reasons why the European countries tried to stop the boats.


In the first documentary, we were arrested by the Italian government because they said our boat had something wrong. We had to go back to Lampedusa. Then the policemen came on the boat at the Lampedusa port and they thought we made a deal with traffickers, which was quite funny because there was a TV crew on the boat making a documentary for a major public German television like the BBC in the UK. Of course, the police didn’t have the proof, so we could leave. However, after this mission, the police arrested some people from NGOs and kept the boats in Sicily. The boats couldn't leave anymore. Right now, there's a trial going on. 10 of the full-time NGO workers are facing 20 years of jail because they were regarded as traffickers. That's the situation now.


PH: For smaller NGOs, such as SARAH, how do you face those challenges?


NS: SARAH is a newly founded one. I met the founder three years ago in my town. People at SARAH work tightly together and always talk to each other because we have the same goal. NGO workers are shocked to see a small wooden boat full of refugees. They have seen people drowning in front of them or suffering from gun wounds. Refugees were in bad situations, especially the women coming from the Libyan camps who were all being raped. When a person who lives in a civilized society knows about all of these problems, we will want to help them. Therefore, the people at SARAH put a lot of effort into this small NGO.


PH: How would you prepare for these missions in general?


NS: Normally the big NGOs have support from a trauma expert. They will come to talk to you before you go on the mission. It was quite interesting for me that I thought I could handle those traumas since I made some documentaries about these tough topics, but it did affect me a lot some years later. I made a documentary three years ago. When I watch it at midnight, I feel touched and depressed.


The documentary shows that we looked for a disappearing boat for the whole night. On the next day, we found it and many corpses were floating on the sea. There were around 200 people on that boat. A couple of months later, I went to Tunisia to visit a fisherman. Because of the currents and the waves, a lot of corpses were taken to the beach. The fisherman buried them and built up a grave, as well as told me the stories about these people. For example, a woman tightly hugged the child to not lose the child.


PH: How did your missions for the documentary in 2016 and research come about?


NS: I met Thomas, the founder of SARAH, in my town in 2017. He told me that they founded an NGO and they were going on a mission to the Canary Islands. In Germany, the TV channels were not keen on these topics. After my documentary in 2017 was broadcasted, someone attacked me personally on Facebook saying I created problems in their lives and brought all the refugees to our country. Therefore, when Thomas told me, I decided to join him with my cameramen.


The documentary will be broadcasted next month. Not so many dramatic things happen in this documentary, but it's quite interesting to see how the new route is working. We found out refugees were leaving from Morocco. They went from the Spanish coastguard to Gran Canaria. There were refugee camps but some were closed. The government gave the refugees COVID tests and brought them into hotels or military camps. There was a demonstration when we were there, because in Lesbos or Moria, Greece, there were very big refugee camps. Although some people in Greece thought they should have helped the refugees, they still worried tourists wouldn't come anymore because of the big refugee camps. It was a little weird when people were lying on the beach, a refugee boat arrived. In Gran Canaria, people were afraid that it would be the second Moria or Lesbos and the tourist industry might be affected.


PH: Do you think documentaries are helping in opening people's minds?


NS: It’s what I'm always hoping for, but sometimes people will blame you because they think refugees shouldn’t come and that's not their problem. I always hope I can change something in the minds of people.


PH: You talked a lot about more people going to the Canary Islands. How did you find out this information?


NS: NGOs are well connected in Africa. They know quite well what's going on in Africa. For example, there's an NGO called Alarm Phone that spreads its phone numbers in Africa. They told people to contact them when people were in trouble on the boat. There is staff on the phone in Europe 24 hours, seven days a week. When they get a phone call from people who are in danger, they will call the coast guard and the media. They're well organized and always connected with the whole situation.


PH: So the major route now would be to the Canary Islands? Is that only recently because of the pandemic?


NS: No. There is a big fight for all the NGOs to go out on a mission with their boats because the Italian government always finds some reasons to block the boats. A lot of NGO boats got blocked at European harbors and can't go out. Sometimes there's no NGO, but only the Libyan coast guard brings the refugees back to Libya to the camps. When we rescued these boats, the refugees always asked where we would bring them to and begged us not to bring them back to Libya, because they thought those camps were the worst place. This route is a big problem now. People want to find a better life, so they will go on another route if one is blocked.


PH: Do you think fewer people are traveling through the Mediterranean now?


NS: I don't know about the Mediterranean, because people can't travel now due to the coronavirus. I don't know how the situation will be when people can travel again. If people find all of these hotels are for refugees, they probably don't want to go in there anymore. We met a manager of a hotel in the Canary Islands. The manager was the nicest person I've ever met. He was so shocked about the situation of the refugees, so the manager said his whole family would all work there 24 hours a day.


However, refugees couldn't stay there forever. The government had to decide what to do with them. The reason why this route wasn't that attractive for refugees was that most of them wanted to go to Germany or North European countries, but Gran Canaria was a small Island and far away from Europe. Once you put your foot in Europe, you can try to get some paperwork done to have a chance to stay there. A lot of people from Morocco even have no chance to stay. They have to go to America immediately, but they still try if there is a chance.


PH: Do you think this hotelier that you met, he's one of the minority in terms of the hotel groups and the businesses in those cities?


NS: Well, I can't say the manager is one of the minority, but I can say we were so impressed by the manager. At the same time, there was a big demonstration in the city, because there's no other business other than hotel business or tourist business. The protestors said they didn't want to have refugees anymore.


PH: What's been the government's reaction or response so far?


NS: Spain is doing quite well so far, especially the Spanish coast guard. Once we found two refugee boats at night. Thomas let us call the Spanish coast guard. Two hours later, they arrived, which wouldn't happen when you are in the Mediterranean. In the Mediterranean, the refugee boats are usually so big and there are a lot of refugees. If the boats are sinking, you can't just bring the people on your boat because your boat will sink as well. The situation is so bad there. However, the Spanish coast guard is behaving much better. They're more cooperative.


PH: Is that like something to do with historically on why you think the Spanish coastguards are being more cooperative than Italians?


NS: It's pretty new for them, so we don't know how they will be in two years. The situation in most of the countries in Europe, especially countries of South Europe, is quite bad due to the coronavirus. I can imagine that it will be hard for the government. They have no money to rescue all the refugees since they have a lot of Spanish people suffering from coronavirus. They have no money for a proper health care system even. Right now they're behaving very well and cooperative, but it's hard to say after the election how the new government sees this refugee crisis.


PH: What other differences have you found between the government groups? Is it just a matter of time to make the Spanish government more responsible?


NS: The Italian government is right-wing. They always have something against people. Also, the economy in Italy is not good. People hope the government will help them before helping refugees. Italy and Spain depend a lot on tourism, but the tourist industry is down because of coronavirus. It will be a big problem.


PH: How do you think people in these cities can help the refugees adjust?


NS: Well, I haven't been to Greece, but I've heard that lots of people there cook for them, bringing food and clothes. There are always very good people. When people know the situations of refugees, they will want to help refugees.


PH: In terms of your experience covering the refugee crisis, other than the sea rescue, what other crises have you covered as well? Can you share that experience?


NS: Only the sea rescue. I am thinking about going to Africa because crossing the Sahara is even more dangerous than crossing the Mediterranean sea. People are coming from everywhere in Africa. We have even met a guy fleeing from Pakistan, trying to go to Europe. So they are from the whole world. People are moving to try to find a place where they can earn enough money to send it back to their family or just to start a better life.


PH: How do you think common people could get more involved or volunteer their time? If you're overseas or can't physically attend.


NS: I think these NGOs need money. For example, the main goal for SARAH is to collect enough money to build our boats because the European governments block the boats. We want to have a small clinic and enough life vests on the boat. Moreover, we probably will have arguments with governments about our missions. For example, 10 people are facing the trial of jail. They also need to manage. There are a lot of people putting all of their energy and time into these topics helping refugees, so they need support.


PH: Are there any other rescue groups that you could recommend us to, or that you see are doing very well?


NS: Yes. The biggest one in Germany is Sea Watch and they already have four boats. One of their boats was blocked three days ago. They were also in big trouble because they had a lot of people on board and the Italian coast guard wasn't reacting to them. Usually, the Sea Watch calls the Italian coast guard to let them help the refugees, but the Italian government just didn't answer for days. Could you imagine when you have like a hundred refugees on board and they need water and food, as well as you have to look after them? After two days, the Italian government allowed them to go to Sicily.


PH: How does that collaboration process work between the different NGOs?


NS: NGOs can't go out at one time, since sometimes there will be five boats out but sometimes nobody's out there. I think Seabridge is the name where they are all together and they are always having meetings, trying to work together.


PH: Are NGOs based across Europe?


NS: Yes. They are based across Europe, but I'm not so familiar with the other European NGOs. We met them when we were out there in the Mediterranean for two weeks. We met a Spanish one and an Italian one, but I had no contact. Of course, they worked together for some rescues. When we found four or five refugee boats, we also called the other NGOs to ask them to help us rescue people.


PH: Are there different times of the year?


NS: Yes, of course. It depends on the weather situation and the situation on the sea. During the winter times, there are rarely boats coming because the sea is so dangerous.


PH: Do you find that there's ever a language barrier between the refugees and the volunteers?


NS: No, the bigger NGOs have translators as well. They always try to have somebody on board who can speak Arabic. Also, since refugees have been fleeing for some months and even years, most of them can speak some words in English. It isn't a big problem to communicate.


PH: How many people would usually be on these missions?


NS: It depends on how big the boats are. For the mission in 2017, I think there were 12 and we were on the sea for two weeks.


PH: What's the media coverage that you get in Germany about these rescues? Is it portrayed in a negative light?


NS: It changed over the years, which started to be quite positive. Many people in Germany wanted to help them and became more welcomed. But, once a New Year, some young guys from Africa or Arab countries attacked girls and women in Cologne on New Year's Eve parties. You can know people's opinions have changed a lot from that. However, you have to keep in mind what they have been through. Although they were so friendly to us on the boat, some of them came from countries where they didn't receive education about relationships with women, so they need to learn a lot.

PH: Are there any trauma help centers for the refugees?


NS: Yes. It's starting right now, but it's still rare. In Germany, refugees got stuck in the camps for years. They couldn't study German or find a job. Of course, they also got frustrated and felt people didn't welcome them.


PH: Do you think people are getting more open-minded in terms of cultural differences and experiences?


NS: Yeah, probably in all countries. But right now due to the coronavirus, it's getting worse because a lot of people hope to help themselves before helping others. Of course, that's not right, but that's what probably a lot of people think right now, so the refugee crisis is not a big topic here anymore.


PH: Do you think all of the media coverage you have seen in Germany is shifting from the refugee crisis to other topics, especially coronavirus?


NS: Yes. You can't make friends when you make a documentary on this topic and bring it to the media. A lot of people will blame you for that. But of course, a lot of colleagues are still reporting that, but it's not in focus anymore.


 
Find Nathalie Suthor on Instagram at @nathaliesuthor and @benstarmedia

Watch Nathalie Suthor’s documentary ‘37 Grad’ on zdf.de/dokumentation/37-grad