Written by Sarah Wei
TENERIFE. Sea rescue missions are a pinnacle humanitarian effort that continues today. Where rescue vessels, yachts, and boats carrying medical staff, doctors, psychologists, and some odd volunteers take to the bordering towns of Sicily, the Canary Islands, and Malta in search of tiny boats carrying refugees and migrants. Refugee boats leave North Africa in the hopes of being rescued, taken to safety and brought to a safer life on European shores.
For many migrants, the struggle started in 2015 with civil unrest spreading across Syria and Libya. An estimated one million people have been suspected to have crossed the Central Mediterranean Sea by boat. Since the beginning of the global pandemic in 2020, the migrant boats are not slowing down, and as border controls tighten on the coast of Italy — sea routes, as they are known by local non-government organizations from the Med to Italy, Greece, and Spain have changed. Refugees are seeking asylum by crossing the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to Gran Canaria. A vastly more dangerous and unprotected route than before, with harsh weather conditions and pirates to add.
The transit between the continents of Africa and the Middle East to Europe has always been a space for mobility and resettlement. In the past, many migrant boats would be fleeing from war, persecution, or conflict in their hometowns. The majority of refugees and migrants take off from the coasts of Libya, Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco -— coming from the nations of Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Nigeria. The major port destinations, in their eyes, are Valencia, Sicily, Malta, and the Canary Islands.
We spoke to volunteers, Nathalie Suthor an investigative journalist and Thomas Nuding Managing Director of Search and Rescue for All Humans (SARAH) a non-profit sea rescue operations team and boat. The two have been on active missions to rescue refugees in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic over the last five years. The main goal of SARAH is to build and run rescue boats, operate small medical clinics, and supply life vests to refugees.
To create a new conversation between the many reporters, volunteers, and rescue groups we brought on Kenny Karpov, a contemporary photographer that documented the scenes from 2014-2019 as a way to report on the issues that have fallen out of the spotlight.
In the following pages, Karpov photographs his volunteer experiences helping refugees at sea alongside snippets from our conversations with volunteers Suthor and Nuding.
Thomas Nuding, Managing Director of Search and Rescue for All Humans (SARAH):
“[Refugees] can only hope to be found by an aircraft or by another ship. It’s just a small wooden boat with one engine. Sometimes they have two engines, a bigger one, and a spare engine, but normally they only have one engine. If the engine breaks, they can only pray that they are found, otherwise, they will die.”
“During the journey, different things can happen. In spring, the seawater can be at 13 to 15-celsius degrees, which is very cold. If people stay in the water for over one hour, they may get hypothermia. Also, if people stay on the boats without drinking water, their bodies can lose a massive amount of water. Moreover, some people who get seasick for very long times, will also lose a lot of water. People from the detention centers may also have knife wounds, gun wounds, psychological problems, and infectious diseases, especially COVID now.”
“I can’t forget when there was a pregnant lady on a vessel who asked me to send her to the doctor. I can’t imagine how bad the situation in their country was, that this vessel was even safer than the land in their country. I think it’s a human necessity to help these people.”
Natalie Suthor, Investigative Journalist:
“[Rescue Boats] have seen people drowning in front of them or suffering from gun wounds. Refugees in bad situations, especially the women coming from the Libyan camps. When a person who lives in a civilized society knows about all of these problems, we want to help them. Therefore, the people at SARAH put a lot of effort into this small NGO.”
“People are coming from everywhere in Africa. Sometimes we 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.”
This article is from our interview feature on Nathalie Suthor and Thomas Nuding available to read in print. Get your limited edition copy here.