November 18, 2019

A Sea of Troubles

“In June, I joined the crew of the rescue ship Alan Kurdi. It was a cantankerous old brute of a boat, a former East German research vessel that now belongs to a small German nonprofit called Sea-Eye. “You are an eye on the sea,” the crew manager told us at our first briefing on board, “you are the eye of the world.” That was our mission for the voyage ahead: not only to witness but to act—to rescue as many people as we could from drowning in the central Mediterranean.

We knew that it would be an uncertain journey. Even as we set out, the captain could not tell us what port we might return to, or when we would be free to return. On its two previous missions, the ship had been stuck off the coast of Malta for more than a week while awaiting permission to disembark the rescued migrants sleeping on its deck. Other NGO crews have faced criminal charges, had their ships seized, and been refused permission to enter European harbors. The other side of the sea was even less friendly: The Libyan coast guard has threatened, boarded, and even shot at NGO ships.

In the end, we would rescue 109 people. In context the number seems small. Since the beginning of 2014, nearly 19,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Those are the ones we know of. Untallied others disappear without a trace. However much glamour its name still retains, the Mediterranean is now the deadliest border on Earth, a boundary between two worlds, one guarded for the rich, the other suffered by the poor. Its waters hide not only the bodies of thousands of missing migrants, but also the suffering they are running from: the torture camps and slave auctions of Libya, an entire economy of monetized pain subsidized by the European Union in the name of the rule of law. This is a story of that sea, and of what happens far from land when no one else is watching. It is a story of hope and extraordinary strength, but also of hypocrisies as deep and suffocating as the sea itself.”

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