Across Europe's seas, anti-immigrant strategies have found a new target: the rescuersby Daniel Howden / March 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
It was the Ark Explorer’s low “freeboard,” the distance between the ship’s deck and the waterline, that saved the rusted, ageing trawler from the wrecker’s yard. The Ark’s low clearance had helped fishermen haul netfuls of cod and herring out of the freezing North Sea for half a century. It also looked about right for fishing refugees out of the Mediterranean.
In May 2016, the Dutch-flagged 158-tonner was bought by a collective of German political activists called Jugend Rettet (“Youth Rescue”), who wanted to save lives and protest Europe’s migration policies in the Central Mediterranean. Refitted and rechristened the Iuventa, the old trawler and its young crew went on to rescue more than 14,000 people over the following 14 months, taking most of them ashore in Italy.
Together with professional search and rescue operatives and doctors from charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the mounting death toll in the Mediterranean has drawn a new generation of activists away from anti-globalisation protests and on to the high seas. Among them was Julian Koeberer, a bearded, well-mannered film student from Frankfurt, who set off to shoot a film about refugees for a film school diploma and found himself drawn to volunteer on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015.
The diploma remains unfinished. Koeberer and the rest of the Iuventa crew criss-crossed the Mediterranean for a year, earning a reputation as the hardest-charging, biggest risk-takers among the 13-boat flotilla operated by different NGOs. The Iuventa was renowned for radical politics and a willingness to load as many refugees as it could fit on deck.
But a call in July 2017 from Rome’s Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), which directs most, if not all, high seas rescues off Libya, marked the beginning of the end. The Rome MRCC asked the Iuventa to move towards co-ordinates in international waters off the coast of Libya, where it said a small dinghy required assistance. By the time it reached the scene an Italian coastguard vessel had already intercepted the dinghy and the two Syrians aboard had been rescued. The Italians asked the Iuventa to transport the Syrians towards Italy.