This article aims at giving space and a voice to those who work and are involved in rescues at sea, bringing contexts that are difficult to reach to the attention of a civilised society. Talking about what happens today in the Mediterranean gives us a better understanding of how the frontier and migration evolves. As Mediterranean Hope, we recount the final phase, the arrival, the landing of the migrants at the Favaloro of Lampedusa where we carry out activities of first assistance, however, we are unable to see what goes on beyond the sea.
The interview with Giacomo Zandonini, freelance journalist and reporter, who spent twelve days aboard the Golfo Azzurro on a mission for the Proactiva Open Arms non-governmental organisation, is useful for us to understand what happens beyond the Lampedusa horizon. The discussion with Giacomo Zandonini is in contrast with journalism based on “mystery” and, without leaving anything to chance, clearly shows us how sea rescues are conducted and coordinated.
How was the Proactiva humanitarian mission born, how many people work on the ship and what is their background?
“The humanitarian mission of this non-governmental organisation began in September 2015 in Lesbos, where Proactiva performed a different type of rescue, with other boats. However, today with the Golfo Azzurro, a former fishing boat with a length of 40 metres, it provides a service in the Central Mediterranean, in the waters between Italy and Libya.
The crew on board consists of 18 people: the captain, second officer, engineer, doctor, nurse, some professional rescuers, two journalists and volunteers. Everyone on board is a volunteer, and except for the coordinator and look-out, no one receives any money. They all have other jobs, they are skippers or clerks, there is a shop owner and a fireman. Some are on board to be an example for their children, to build them a future, while others have a background in activism and volunteering. More than 90% of the organisation is financed by fundraising and private donations. Of course, these expensive recovery and rescues at sea are very difficult to manage, navigating a boat that costs thousands of euros a day to operate. However, Proactiva, like everyone, is very committed to continuing this work because of the importance in doing so, of being in this area of very dangerous sea, of communicating and talking about what happens.”
What type of missions does Proactive perform with other non-governmental organisations operating in the Mediterranean? How are these rescue operations coordinated and where do they operate?
“There are currently seven NGO ships present in the Central Mediterranean. Of course, they are not all in the same place. There are those that are returning to Sicily and those that are heading towards the Search and Research area. Whereas, the smaller ships stay put because they don’t have the capacity to carry many people, so their job is to support others, trying to distribute lifejackets, and to help transfer those rescued to larger boats.
The search and rescue operations are performed in different ways. On the one hand, there is the visual search conducted with binoculars from the bridge, which can spot boats up to 5 miles away; on the other hand, the boats are located on the radar. Many other rescues have also begun after an SOS was sent by the migrants themselves via satellite cell phones to the Italian Coast Guard. In this case (like all other cases), the coordination of Rome indicates who and where to intervene, depending on the distance from the rescue site. The boat that arrives at the location makes an initial evaluation of the conditions and number of people.”
Last week only one survivor of a shipwreck made it to Lampedusa, can you tell us something about it and about the general situation at sea today?
“In last week’s shipwreck, we located only the tip of an inflatable boat, which usually carries about 120, 130, 140 people, and another organisation called Jugend Rettet saw another one about an hour away. These two inflatable boats were almost completely sunk. They were 15 meters long and the only part emerging from the water was the tip.”
Do you think those two inflatable boats were already rescued by other boats and then left in the open sea, or no one arrived in time and, therefore, the people were not saved?
“Generally, when boats are rescued, the crew leave a mark or the word “Rescue” or a colour or number on the hull, or sometimes the inflatables are cut along the side with a knife. This identifies that an inflatable has been rescued. The IOM, International Organisation for Migration, declared that the people on these two shipwrecks were saved and taken back to Libya. If so, these same people would, for the most part, try to cross again.”
Going back to the attacks of recent weeks, we have witnessed a reversal in the responsibilities where those who save people at sea have been criminalised. What role does the media play both in making these attacks and from your perspective as a journalist?
“One thing is certain, everyone is struggling to understand the recent attacks on the NGOs and it is especially hard to understand why the media is focusing so much on unjustified accusations. In fact, something fundamental seems to have been lost. You just have to come on board to see how they work and to know that there is no complicity with traffickers. Very few Italian journalists have come aboard humanitarian ships to report what they do, even though people are continuing to arrive in Italy. This is a very strong signal because its expresses the disinterest and habituation of the Italian media. I don’t want to generalise, but the type of journalism that revolves around this theme so far has not really addressed the issue, but has limited itself to supporting a reversal of responsibilities by criminalising those who save lives at sea. This type of journalism is based on creating mystery. The purpose of these attacks seems to be to confuse and influence public opinion and also to discredit the rescue missions, so as to relieve the collective consciousness of our society of any responsibility. Therefore, it is extremely important to not only talk about the rescue work, but also about what happens and how it happens in this sea of agreements.”