The fear in people’s eyes

Erziehungskunst | What made you join Sea-Watch as a volunteer?

Oscar Schaible | In 2016, more than 4000 people died in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean.1 I wanted to do something about that and applied to various aid organisations. We enjoy many privileges. I can study and lead a carefree life. The least we can do is not to let people who are seeking such a life drown in the Mediterranean.

EK | A television team from North German Radio (NDR) accompanied Sea-Watch 3, skippered by Carola Rackete, in the summer of 2019. The action ended with her illegal entry, as the Italians saw it, to the port of Lampedusa and caused a media storm all over the world. Rackete was subsequently arrested. How did you experience this dramatic situation?

OS | I was working on deck as we entered the port and was occupied with preparing the lines. After we had moored, I had the opportunity and time to watch what was going on on the quay. I experienced the whole European refugee debate in a few square metres. Many supporters who applauded us on the one side, but also very loud people on the other side who wished us and the people we had rescued dead. In between, the completely overstretched and helpless authorities, illuminated by the flashes and lights from numerous cameras. Experiencing that affected me deeply and upset me emotionally. Seeing the fear in people’s eyes after we had been with them at sea for almost three weeks and got to know them was very difficult. After what they had experienced in Libya and on their journey, I wished that they would have been received with greater friendliness and warmth.

EK | Sea-Watch, like other private organisations, is accused of encouraging more refugees to cross the sea and thus indirectly supporting the dirty work of the people smugglers. Is this charge justified?

OS | This charge has been rebutted by reality. The figures show clearly that people continue to try to come across in boats which aren’t seaworthy even when no civilian rescue organisations are working in the Mediterranean.2 The only causal connection which exists in this context is that the less rescue capacity there is in the Mediterranean the more people die on the crossing. In 2018, the death rate lay at an average of 1:14. One of 14 people lost their life in the attempt to reach Europe across the Mediterranean. At its height, the death rate lay at 1:8. The real figure is likely to be significantly higher.3

EK | The obligation to rescue people for humanitarian reasons has to be followed up by political solutions to prevent refugees from putting themselves at risk at sea for weeks at a time under unbearable conditions before they find a port that will take them. What do you propose?

OS | Apart from rescuing these people and complying with the law of the sea, it is a matter of fighting the causes we are all familiar with why people flee – ending conflicts and offering people a future. You mustn’t forget that as rescuers at sea we are not in a position to offer solutions to complex political and global problems. We are reacting to the situation here and now and are attempting to preserve fundamental human rights such as the right to life. Currently everyone is banking on deterrence in that people are prevented from landing until they either cannot be rescued any longer or Libyan militias, funded and coordinated by the EU, take them back the Libya where they are tortured and exploited mercilessly. In addition, the work of those who want to help is made as difficult as possible and criminalised.

EK | What do you say to the accusation that the refugees are primarily not political but male economic migrants and that the problems have to be solved locally, that is in the countries of origin?

OS | The obligation to rescue people in peril at sea, laid down in article 98 (1) of the UN Law of the Sea, is non-discriminatory in nature. Anyone who gets into distress at sea must be rescued, no matter where they come from, why they got into distress, what their reasons and legal status are.4 The question as to who is subsequently granted asylum is not one that is dealt with at sea but on land. It is completely out of touch with reality and cynical to demand that such a selection should take place at sea.

EK | You are at sea for weeks at a time with people of similar views to yourself. What drives you and your colleagues to do this?

OS | We are united by the desire to do something about the deaths that occur on the most deadly external frontier in the world. Often we only get to know one another once we are on board. Team spirit is particularly important here. On board, great value is placed on people dealing considerately with one another. People look out for one another and there is always a designated person you can talk to. This means that there is a high level of trust among the crew which gives us the strength and motivation to withstand stressful and emotionally tense situations.

EK | When you finish your law studies, you intend to continue working with refugees. What are your plans for the future?

OS | I finished my course last summer and am waiting for a practice placement. In the long term, I would like to work to ensure that human rights and international humanitarian law is upheld, be it at a non-state or state level.

Literature and links:


2) E. Steinhilper, R. Gruijters (2018): »A Contested Crisis: Policy Narratives and Empirical Evidence on Border Deaths in the Mediterranean«. In Sociology 2018, Vol. 52(3) S. 515-533.


4) SOLAS Convention Annex Chapter V Reg. 33(1); SAR Convention Annex Para. 2.1.10