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UWCers on the Frontline of the Mediterranean Migration Crisis

15 June 2018

For the last several days, hundreds of migrants and refugees have been stranded on a ship in the Mediterranean.

Photo credit: Karpov / SOS Méditerranée

Pulled from the sea by a team of brave rescuers aboard the Aquarius including a UWC alumnus, 630 individuals seeking asylum (among them several young children, pregnant women, people in need of medical treatment and more than 120 unaccompanied minors) have been forced to withstand harsh weather conditions, seasickness, overcrowding and exhaustion as neighbouring countries refused to allow the rescue ship to dock.

 

"[W]e had to wait for days standing still in the heat. Food running low, people getting anxious, one swear[ing] he will jump [from the ship].

[Now] the stretch of the sea we are traveling through is rough! We took 4-metre waves last night, sending spray over the ship. The nurses, who worked non-stop, held vomit bags for mothers as they breastfed. These same people just survived a shipwreck. 

I wish you could talk to him: this one guy, who suffered a loss and survived a shipwreck, was hauled onto Aquarius and left to drift on our ship for days […] He is so polite and kind, even asks me how I am. When he asks me why this is happening, I tell him: because there are horrible people in the world.  

This ship is a specialized tool to save the lives of vulnerable people, who many would rather see die. I want to be back in the place we are needed [...] Human life is sacred."

- Max Avis (UWC Atlantic College, 2005-2007),
Deputy Rescue Coordinator aboard Aquarius

Crisis in the Mediterranean

Since saving hundreds of people from shipwrecks last Saturday night, the boat’s crew and other representatives of SOS Méditerranée (the maritime-humanitarian organisation that charters the Aquarius, operating in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières) have been negotiating with several European states for a safe port. For two days, the crew were instructed by Italian officials to stand by, awaiting word from Italy, France or Malta that the ship could dock in one of their ports, allowing the hundreds of survivors on board to receive medical attention and other assistance. On Tuesday, however, it was finally decided that the survivors would not be permitted to disembark in Italy - and the Aquarius was directed to make its way to Spain, where the new government in power has agreed to allow the ship to land. 

During the course of this week, Italian authorities have provided supplies to the Aquarius, including water, food and toys for children. Several hundred passengers have since also been transferred to Italian Coast Guard and Navy ships, which are joining the Aquarius on its roughly 1,500 km (approximately 900 mile) journey to Valencia. Due to adverse weather conditions, these ships have already had to change course since setting off on Tuesday evening, seeking shelter along the coast of Sardinia as passengers continue to experience seasickness and suffer from other medical conditions, some of which cannot be treated on-board (including, in some cases, severe chemical burns from gasoline mixed with seawater). 

The ships are expected to arrive in Spain tomorrow night, depending on how weather conditions develop: but the survivors have already been at sea for over five days, much of that time literally adrift as some of Europe’s political actors decide how to respond to the Mediterranean migration crisis amidst what appears to be growing anti-immigration sentiment among some groups. The journey to Valencia has left one of the deadliest areas of water in the world with three fewer rescue boats patrolling the waters: “They split the people we rescued into two other government ships, who cover the same area as us! Three rescue ships!,” emphasized UWC alumnus and Aquarius’ Deputy Rescue Coordinator, Max Avis. The Mediterranean sea is home to the most dangerous migration route in the world: as of June 6, the death toll for migrants traversing the Mediterranean in 2018 alone was estimated at 785.

The UWC Connection

The UWC movement is proud that several members of the UWC community have been involved in the important rescue work happening recently in the Mediterranean, including aboard the Aquarius. Max Avis (UWC Atlantic College 2005-2007) is currently Deputy Rescue Coordinator on the Aquarius, where his UWC “co-year” Basile Fischer (also UWC Atlantic College 2005-2007) has also served.

Max’s journey with maritime rescue began at UWC Atlantic College, where he trained with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) which until 2013 had an inshore lifeboat station at the College and conducted rescue trainings for UWC students. In 2015, Max joined the Atlantic Pacific International Rescue Boat Project (“Atlantic Pacific”), initiated by fellow alum Robin Jenkins (UWC Atlantic College 1990-1992), which subsequently became a UWCx Initiative in 2016. Atlantic Pacific has been involved with the training of many search and rescue operatives at UWC Atlantic College and beyond, a considerable number of which have gone on to work with NGOs assisting in the refugee and migration crises at sea. 

 

"Despite not being a political organisation, our work has found us in the center of an issue that has divided world opinion. We believe that everyone has the right to be rescued at sea, regardless of context and we believe in solidarity with any other organisation that shares these views. We respect the decision made by the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, to provide safe harbor to Aquarius, the SOS Méditerranée crew and the human beings that are desperately trying to find shelter from oppression. We will continue to train more people, some of whom will go on to volunteer in this ongoing crisis; we salute them and all of our crew who have already put themselves in harm' way to help others, all in the name of humanity."

- Atlantic Pacific International Rescue Boat Project

The UWC movement’s connection with marine rescue, as many will know, dates back to the development of the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) at UWC Atlantic College in the 1960s under the supervision of Desmond Hoare, the College’s (and the UWC movement’s) inaugural Principal. Rescue operations across the world, including those performed by the crew of the Aquarius still use RHIBs to safely take people on board. 

UWC and the Refugee Crisis

Today, UWC International is doing its part to help refugees by working to offer 100 additional scholarships for refugee scholars every year at UWC schools and colleges. Through this initiative, in partnership with UNHCR,  talented refugee students are given the opportunity of a high-quality international education regardless of their circumstances - hopefully, in some cases these scholars eventually return to their communities to make positive change as leaders with a global perspective.

In 2017, UWC International’s Executive Director Jens Waltermann spoke on the Global Compact on Refugees in Geneva: “Refugee communities will need a new generation of civic leaders to rebuild their countries of origin in a post-conflict era. The development of refugee youth with a potential for excellence and civic leadership will be essential for reconciliation and peace building and to break the protracted cycles of violence and deprivation in the longer term.” 

UWC encourages all those who identify with the UWC mission for peace and a sustainable future to support, in whatever way they can, the work of initiatives helping refugees in need.

For updates on the situation aboard the Aquarius, see SOS Méditerranée on Twitter here and here - for information on volunteering with them, see here

To learn more about the Atlantic Pacific International Rescue Boat Project, a UWCx Initiative, and how to support them, see here

For more on the UWC Refugee Initiative, and how you can help UWC make a difference in the lives of young refugees, visit our page here