For the past five years, Thomas Nuding, the Managing Director of Search and Rescue for All Humans (SARAH) has been on an active mission to rescue refugees crossing both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
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: Can you start by telling us what your experiences have been so far, from reporting and being on missions during the refugee crisis.
Thomas Nuding: Let me start with my intentions. In the summer of 2016, one of my friends wrote me an email saying that he did a sea rescue for the refugees with Sea-Watch. I thought it was a great adventure, so I joined my first mission in October of that year. I worked as a captain on a sea rescue vessel with a German NGO called Sea-Eye. I can’t forget that there was a pregnant lady on that vessel who asked me to send her to the doctor. I couldn’t imagine how bad the situation of their country was, this vessel was even safer than the land of their country. I think it’s a human necessity to help these people. The upcoming thing was in 2018, a sea rescue vessel was blocked from Malta, and the Italian government intervened for more than one week. I think the European Union Government broke the law of human rights. It’s important to protect human rights. Therefore, the sea rescue changed my mind.
PH: How would you normally prepare for these missions? Did you expect to see what you saw?
TN: No, I saw a lot of different things from what I expected. In the very beginning, sea rescue was much easier because of the support of the Italian government. They provided boats, shared information with the sea rescue meeting, and even arranged aircraft to patrol over the sea. They informed the position of the refugees to NGOs and helped with taking people back to Europe after the rescue.
However, everything changed completely in 2017. In 2017, the European Union, especially Italy, decided to work with the Libyan coast guards. The Libyan coast guards got boats from Italy and money from the EU to bring fleeing people from the sea back to Libya. Libya was not a safe place for them. The Libyan coast guards collaborated with the smugglers, even sometimes they were the smugglers. They brought people back to the detention centers and tortured them again to squeeze money out of them. It was the worst for the fleeing people. They were afraid of losing their lives in Libya, so they chose to escape. However, the Libyan coast guards were informed by the European governments to bring them back to Libya, to the detention centers. At the detention centers, women were raped over and over again. People were sold as slaves. When the people were not useful for the Libyans anymore, they would be put on a rubber boat and sent out to the sea. There were so many smuggling organizations which you can’t imagine. If the people were on a boat escaping from the first organization, the Libyan coast guard could bring them back and sell them to the second or third organization. It was a loop that would never end.
I met people from Somalia on our rescue vessel. When the Libyans came close to our boat, they held our feet and begged us not to send them back to the Libyans. They said “don’t give me back to the Libyans. If you want to give me back to the Libyans, I will jump into the sea and end my life.”
There are many reasons why people want to escape from their countries. The civil war and political reasons make the government in those countries treat people badly. Also, the economy is in a bust. If people think staying in their countries would be safer, they won’t travel to Libya and go by boat to Europe, which means the situation in their own countries is awful.
PH: Have you had a lot of interactions with the smugglers and the job traffickers on the missions?
TN: Yes, I have contacted the smugglers several times. The first contact we had was with the so-called Engine Fishers. In 2016 and 2017, they had small boats in around six meters. Three people went out with the boats. When they left the Libyan coast and entered international waters, 25 to 30 miles away from the coastline, one of them got a piece of wood and told the migrant people not to come close. Then two others took the engines from the migrant people’s boat. The people were left alone on their boat without any engine drifting on the sea.
The second contact was the so-called Libyan coast guards. We called it the “so-called Libyan coast guard” because they collaborated with smugglers. However, the European governments thought they were good people and they never worked with smugglers. NGOs knew them better since we got the stories from the people who survived from the Libyan coast guards.
PH: How long would these missions go for?
TN: In the early days, these missions were around two weeks. In the past, the harbor that the NGOs used was Valletta in Malta. It was the closest Harbor to the Libyan coastline. You received instructions before getting on the boat, then came back to instruct the next group. But now it changed because we couldn’t get any information from the governments and we didn't know when or where you could find people. We had to use private aircraft to search for them.
Last week, Sea-Watch left Palermo, Sicily. They found two boats within 5 days and they had 363 people on board rescued in a period of 48 hours. The boat was droughted, so they started their way back to Italy. However, the Italian government blocked the coast. They need to wait for three days or even three weeks. People on the boat were in a bad situation. Some got injured, while others got sick and needed medical treatment. Compared to the past, it took more time to let them disembark. 360 people needed at least two days to do COVID tests, then they had to stay in the harbor for at least two weeks for quarantine. Also, the Italian government used different reasons to block the ship, such as too many people on board or too many life vests. The ship could be blocked in the harbor for months. Therefore, one mission now could need at least five weeks.
PH: How many people would you usually have on board as crew?
TN: It depends if it is the small vessel or the big vessel. The small vessels, like Sea-Eye and Sea Fox from Sea-Eye, have around eight to nine people crew. The best we want for SARAH is the vessel for a 12 person crew. The bigger vessels, like Sea-Watch Four and SEA-EYE 4, have a crew between 22 and 26.
PH: What percentage of injuries that need medical advice would happen on the boat, and how many would happen during the journey?
TN: During the journey, different things can happen. In spring, the seawater can be at 13 to 15-celsius degrees, which is very cold. If the 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 would have a massive loss of water. Moreover, some people who get seasick for a very long time, their body 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 for now.
PH: How do you deal with the psychological after-effects of the journey for your staff and the refugees?
TN: We have some psychologists on board. Sometimes the medical team has to deal with this situation themselves.
PH: What has been your experience with the medical groups once you've landed at port?
TN: People may need emergency treatments or normal medical treatment. If the condition of someone turns bad, we can call the Italian government to ask them to make an emergency medevac to a hospital. However, normally the government doesn't care about the physiological problems or something not severe.
PH: Do you work with NGOs on land so that once the refugees arrive, there are volunteers to help them integrate into the community?
TN: We do work with different NGOs. For example, the most common NGO working in Africa is Alarm Phone. Alarm Phone has website pages in different languages. On their pages, people can find phone numbers to dial in an emergency, but when some people lose their phones, those are not useful anymore. Some people may have some cheap satellite phones to contact with the Alarm Phone. Normally, the call will also connect to the government due to the laws, but the government won’t help generally. Only NGOs will come to help them get to the land, normally in Italy and Malta, and assist people to get through the law process of the government. NGOs on the land also help them get food and psychological treatments and also keep in contact with them.
PH: How do you tackle the different rules in the different regions?
TN: Because of the Italian government, it was a little bit more difficult to run an NGO in Italy. Valletta, Malta is closer to the Libyan coastline, which is also an easily reachable country from almost every airport in Europe. Also, they can speak English. It’s easy for you to prepare for the boats to go to the Libyan coastline. However, nowadays, Malta is very bad for NGOs. They have arrested the boats from NGOs for years and don’t want to have NGOs anymore.
However, now there is a new possibility in Sicily. Since the Italian law now doesn’t allow refugees to be brought back to the harbors, some NGOs will have a home base in Sicily. Spanish NGOs will have bases in Spain. SOS Mediterranean will have bases in Marseilles, France. However, these harbors are very far away from Sicily. It takes one week to travel from Spain to Sicily and another week from Sicily to the South.
PH: Once you've picked up these refugees, how do you know which harbors to land in, or would you sometimes have to spend a week with refugees on board going to a different harbor because you weren't able to land.
TN: If we bring back people from the South to the North, yes. You get in contact with the Italian government because every country has an MRCC. The MRCC is the maritime rescue coordination center, which is responsible for international sea rescue and will tell you the next safe port. We have to go to the port whichever they tell us, no matter how far it is. We need to wait and ask the government to let them instruct you to a port.
PH: We heard that the routes are now changing. People used to go through the Mediterranean sea, and now they're going through the Canary Islands. How do you hear of that and what's your experience so far?
TN: I saw the Canary islands on TV and I heard on the radio that the situation there is turning very bad. In 2019, about 2,500 people were crossing the Atlantic in 12 months. In 2020, we decided to go there for a short period at the end of November. From January to October, 12,000 people arrived in the Canary Islands, so we knew the situation there was becoming severe and we decided to help. In November and at the beginning of December, the situation was extremely severe. In 2020, around 25,000 people came to the Canary Islands. The distances they traveled were 1000 kilometers, which was three times longer than the distance people traveled in the central Med, 300 to 350 kilometers. The time they were on board was much longer. Since I am an experienced sailor and I was in the Canary Islands several years ago, I know the weather situation that the wind comes from the Northeast and also the currents come from the Northeast. Therefore, if the engines are broken, the boats will drift to the west, where there is nothing, only the big Atlantic Ocean.
PH: How would these refugee boats navigate when they're in the oceans? They don't have the same equipment as the boats that you're using.
TN: It depends. They may navigate with cheap compasses. I saw some compasses which can be bought for $5 from Alibaba. Those are wooden boxes the size of 10 to 10 centimeters. Normally, they are not good enough for navigation, but people use them in the Atlantic. Many of these people have cheap small handheld GPS. We once found a very old handheld GPS, probably five or six years old, on a refugee’s boat. The positions on the GPS were marked by the previous owner, which was on the East coast of the United States, so we thought this GPS was probably sold on eBay. Then, it was sold to Africa and people used them as a navigational aid to get from the South to the Canary Islands, but it only works when they have a running engine. When the engine breaks, they have no chance to navigate.
PH: In those situations what would they do if they can't navigate anymore?
TN: Nothing. They 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 could be found, otherwise, they will die.
PH: What about the chance of an extreme weather condition? Is that quite frequent on that route to the Canary Islands?
TN: When you have bad weather conditions, the bow of the boat will be very high. It’s also a very large fishing port. There are tons of boats, which could be found on Google maps even. A lot of fishermen lost their jobs at those piers for months because of the big fishing vessels from all the industrial nations including China. They took out all the fish from the sea while the smaller local vessels couldn’t find any fish anymore. The local people lost their jobs, income, and future. They had nothing to do, so they sold the vessels to the smugglers. Some people will even go further south to Senegal and along the coastline to Nouadhibou. They leave there, turning North and trying to reach Gran Canaria.
PH: What would be the success rate for the boats going out, getting picked up by NGO groups or the coast guard?
TN: Normally, the boats can get close to the Canary Islands, around a hundred nautical miles away. The Spanish sea rescue organizations do good jobs with a well-equipped boat, but with very few people. Sometimes they only have five or three people on a big vessel at around 30-meter length. Also, they are only available to go out for less than one and a half weeks, so they can only operate in one area. I think, close to a hundred nautical miles South of the Trenton area. The migrant boats have to reach this area to be rescued. If they miss this area because of a broken engine or stronger winds, they will be in danger.
The official data say only 12% of all people fleeing have been dying, which is the same in the central Med. Only the dead person can be counted if the bodies are found. If the bodies are not found, then they are not to be counted. So, the rate of people that die is five times more than 12% in my opinion.
PH: That's really sad. Is there anything that you think about people within the cities? When the refugees do land, what has been the reception from businesses and from the local communities?
TN: You have to know something about the Canary Islands. Many people live from the tourists. During the COVID-19, there were almost no tourists. At the beginning of last year, people from the Canary Islands tried to help. For example, people who own hotels give their hotels to the refugees because they can get some money from the government for keeping some fleeing people in the hotels. It’s better to have somebody in the hotels than nobody. At least, they can gain some money. But generally, people in the Canary Islands get more and more afraid of losing tourism, because many European tourists are afraid of refugees. It’s just something in their mind. They want a pretty beach, a comfortable hotel, and a happy holiday, so they think the refugees are disturbing. Then, the local business doesn’t want to lose their income, so they don’t welcome refugees either. The situation is becoming worse and worse.
PH: Overall, have you seen the situation changing in your experience comparing the earlier days from 2016 to now 2021?
TN: From 2016 to 2019, the number of migrants was only around 2, 500 each year, so the Spanish government would take them to Mainland Spain from the islands. However, with the increasing number, the government didn't want to have them anymore, so the migrants had to stay on the islands. The government made some agreements with Morocco, Moda, Tania, and Senegal to bring the people back, but the agreements were completely ended after the COVID.
The city of Arguineguín is the one that is the southernmost harbor in Gran Canaria with around 3,000 population. The NGOs brought the migrants there and they had to wait until the COVID test was done. Around 2000 people were living there for months. The situation turned very bad in the press and on TV. Now they made some old military camps as refugee camps in every Island area, at least one. I think the situation on Canary Island at the end of this year will be the same as on the Greek islands in Malia.
PH: I think that was all of our questions so far. Is there anything else you'd like to share?
TN: Yes. In my mind, it's completely unacceptable that people die because of drowning undersea. Everybody has to take care in their mind that we need to solve the problems of fleeing people. If you want to change Africa, we need 10 to 30 years. What I want to tell everybody is that from now until the time Africa has changed, we are forced by law to help people to survive. As industrial countries from the Northern hemisphere, we made these situations hundreds of years ago until nowadays. China is even doing the same thing in Africa nowadays. We should help them to survive. It's humanity and a necessity to help people. That's why I want to have some donations for a new rescue ship.
If you check our homepage, you can see our NGO is a little bit different from all the others. Every NGO buys many kinds of ships, such as fishing vessels and patrolling ships, but the size is not appropriate and the speed is too slow. The maximum speed is between 8 to 12 months. If you fly over sea by aircraft, you can see there are few rescue ships on the sea and the distance between rescue ships is really long. They need several hours to go to the place where they need help. Sometimes people are dead because rescue ships need half a day to get there. Sometimes the Libyan coast guards picked them up and brought them back to Libya. Sometimes the boat sank and people drowned. We need a new vessel specially designed for the rescue with 50% faster speed. That needs a lot of money, more than half a million euros. It’s worth it to save people, so please help us to get donations for our project.