Robin Jenkins is a long-term volunteer with the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute), Director and Founder of the Atlantic Pacific International Rescue Boat Project and crew member on board Sea Watch 3 (SW3). After spending 3 weeks on the Central Mediterranean in one of the refugee crisis’ most controversial moments, Robin shares his reflections on the Sea Watch 3 Christmas stand-off, apathy and a need for unity between Search and Rescue NGOs
“During this Christmas and New Year period, the humanitarian SAR organization Sea Watch, and it’s rescue vessel the SW3, found itself at the centre of an uncomfortable political divide. Denied the right to seek shelter and the ability to provide safety for their already traumatised passengers, Southern European States left the ship - with 22 crew and 32 rescued casualties on board - exposed to winter storms and a mode of uncertainty. With a disregard for maritime law and human decency, through a desire to be seen as taking a hard stance on migration, the SW3 was forced to sail around in circles,while EU authorities dithered about what to do next, during which time supplies dwindled and the passengers got sick.
How did this happen?
During the past 4 to 5 years, the situation in the Med has become a background noise that consistently irritates the European image. It has been a thorn in the side of our well-healed, egalitarian dream. And it has split public opinion more successfully than any other humanitarian issue. When images of dead children washing up on beaches started to appear on the front pages of newspapers in Berlin, Paris, London, Rome - and across European media - a collective shiver ran down the spines of the worlds most peaceful region. Voices began to call out and demands were made, year-out students packed their bags and the Greek islands became host to a macabre summer festival.
The distressed faces of panicking people wading out of the Aegean Sea with ill-fitting life jackets and city suitable clothing spoke to the empathetic imagination of so many of us. We could no longer stand by; we could no longer be soothed by the next news article: the rowdy masses gathered and took action.
4 years on from the fantastic headlines and iconic images, people are still drowning in search of safety, but now only the invested remain to help. The long-term volunteers who have made this crisis their life struggle on, once seen as good Samaritans now labeled as troublemakers and antagonists. The European taste for the ‘other’ has soured and old fashioned scaremongering and finger pointing has replaced the tide of clemency.
Europe’s image is tarnished. Its leaders have been caught in the crossfire of populist rhetoric and human rights. They teeter on the fence of public opinion and civil duty, unwilling to take action in fear of losing favour with either point of view. The new course of action is no course of action; 3 weeks at sea during winter storms and no port of safety confirms this position and asks serious questions about what will happen next.
As more NGOs are restricted from carrying out their activities and more European ports close to rescue vessels, the political climate changes. The countries whose borders face the Mediterranean Sea have emphasised their position and have warned their Northern allies about the consequences of failing to distribute those looking for asylum. The Southern regions believe they have borne the brunt and taken the burden, and to some extent it is true. Wealthier, Northern states have all but washed their hands of this crisis. Instead, the middle class bastions of Upper Europe have chosen to pull up the ladder behind them, to look away and focus on domestic problems, to cite damaged economies and labor problems as reasons not to respond.
The simple debates about life or death are long gone. We now squabble about the validity of people’s rights: Are they economic migrants or genuine refugees? Did they come from a war or a place of poverty? Are they Muslims or Christians? Are they women or kids? These arguments postpone action and put more at risk. These opinions stir hatred and mistrust, separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, allowing ‘us’ to simply walk away.
With the grip of authority squeezing tighter, the time has come to push even harder. And there are many NGOs who swim against the current, who refuse to believe that we can’t do more. And around the world there are those who put themselves forward and decide enough is enough and act on their words. But to move forward, there must be an alliance, a common practice and an established code. There should be some guidelines with an agreed agenda. Across all of the different organisation trying to help, there needs to be an accord, a watertight process that projects order and shows confidence to the onlooking masses.
I have often mentioned my suspicions regarding tribalism amongst NGOs and I have heard with my own ears the disputes of priority: who got there first and who owns this rescue. Over the years, this drum beats louder, with lines appearing between similar parties and division rolling in like territorial armies. It is a predictable symptom of isolation.
This is the moment for all to get together and create a strategy about how to proceed to be the most effective. Intentions and ambitions must be made clear and a united strategy formed. We must avoid the stereotype of becoming disgruntled activists and consider presenting an image of professionalism. We should not allow our individual beliefs represent the actions of a greater cause.
Different organisations follow different policies some protect what they do and contain what is reported, others reveal their political opinion. Some are happy to be seen in the fight and rally the troops, while others maintain a position of neutrality. Either way, with the grip of authority squeezing tighter, there needs to be unity to continue the mission. There is no doubt a common goal and a clear ambition, the question now it is all about efficiency and a willingness to unite.
Now, our true metal is being tested and we are being asked the truth about our real thoughts and our less savoury fears. Looming questions are being asked of us and our international image is being tested.
What is Europe? Who are we really?
And my answer is this: we are more. We are better than the malaise, the in-fighting or the wicked stench of apathy. We are the people who, collectively, open our arms and say welcome.”