Migrant crisis'No one else will rescue these people'

In Germany, Jewish funds help keep Mediterranean migrant rescue missions afloat

As thousands flee Africa on flimsy boats, just one ship operates in the area between Libya and Italy. A Jewish aid group is partnering up with others to help its operators

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor

  • Refugees aboard a blue rubber dinghy soon to be picked up by the Ocean Viking, August 2019. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)
    Refugees aboard a blue rubber dinghy soon to be picked up by the Ocean Viking, August 2019. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)
  • The rescue ship Ocean Viking. (Anthony Jean/SOS Mediterranee)
    The rescue ship Ocean Viking. (Anthony Jean/SOS Mediterranee)
  • Refugees aboard the Ocean Viking look out over the Mediterranean Sea. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)
    Refugees aboard the Ocean Viking look out over the Mediterranean Sea. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)
  • A rescue worker sits with refugees aboard the Ocean Viking, August 2019. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)
    A rescue worker sits with refugees aboard the Ocean Viking, August 2019. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)
  • Refugees aboard the Ocean Viking look out over the Mediterranean Sea. (Avra Fialas/SOS Mediterranee)
    Refugees aboard the Ocean Viking look out over the Mediterranean Sea. (Avra Fialas/SOS Mediterranee)

BERLIN — There is currently a single rescue ship operating in the central Mediterranean to aid the thousands of refugees and migrants attempting to cross on their own from northern Africa over to Europe, according to its operators.

The rescue ship, dubbed the Ocean Viking, set sail early last month from Marseilles. It is run by the nonprofit humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee, and the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany has joined a number of other aid groups in supporting its efforts.

The Ocean Viking made headlines across Europe last month when, less than two weeks after its launch, it had already collected 356 migrants, mostly from Sudan, from boats in distress off the Libyan coast. Over capacity, the ship was then forced to idle in international waters for nearly two weeks as European countries reluctantly hashed out an agreement to absorb the asylum seekers.

“It was August and the ship was extremely crowded, sitting in the middle of the water with the sun pounding down — it was unbearably hot,” David Starke, general director of SOS Mediterranee in Germany, told The Times of Israel.

“Conditions were very difficult on board, but for more than 10 days the ship was stuck in a standoff position between Italy and Malta as we waited for someone to grant it a port of safety,” Starke said.

“The ship wasn’t equipped to hold that many people, but we kept responding to distress calls because we could not refuse to help people in danger,” he said.

Eventually, six European countries — France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Romania — agreed to take those on board, and the Maltese navy brought them ashore.

Refugees aboard the Ocean Viking look out over the Mediterranean Sea. (Avra Fialas/SOS Mediterranee)

In recent years, it has become a regular occurrence for boats to capsize and passengers drown while attempting to make the treacherous journey from Libya to Malta or Sicily in vessels not designed to withstand the rigors of the high seas. The migrants are often at the mercy of smugglers paid to transport them across the Mediterranean, but who do not personally accompany them. To all appearances, these smugglers care little for the passengers’ safety.

Since the completion of a yearlong Italian rescue mission in October 2014, there has not been another ongoing operation in the Mediterranean by a European state. The European Union as a whole has never launched such a mission.

Rescued migrants sit on the coast of Khoms, some 120 kilometers from the Libyan capital Tripoli, on July 26, 2019 (AFP)

According to the CIA World Factbook, Libya, a country still mired in civil war, has become a destination and transit country for refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany executive director Aron Schuster. (Alexander Beygang)

The current state of lawlessness makes these tens of thousands of refugees highly vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation. Along with migrants seeking better economic prospects, many refugees also make use of the flimsy boats to attempt the dangerous voyage to Europe.

“We as a Jewish organization feel obliged not to be bystanders in a situation where there’s a humanitarian crisis taking place in front of our eyes, especially when it’s so close to Europe,” Central Welfare Board executive director Aron Schuster told The Times of Israel.

“Everything that we do as a social and welfare organization is on the one hand based on of course humanitarian rights, but also on Jewish values,” he said. “And as the Talmud says — when one saves even a single life, it’s like saving all of humanity.”

109 worlds saved

Following the standoff, the Ocean Viking returned to sea. This past Tuesday it conducted two missions to rescue a total of 109 people, including a newborn baby.

The Ocean Viking covers the central Mediterranean Sea, from Libya northward to the Italian island of Lampedusa and the south of Sicily, with Malta in between, Starke said. He said the area that the rescue mission covers is vast, and that migrants are fleeing Libya on a constant basis because the situation there is so terrible.

Starke said rescue ships such as Ocean Viking are necessary because no one else will rescue these people. “They leave on dinghies and small rubber boats which are not made to go out in the high sea, and the chance of them to go out to sea and drown is very, very likely,” he added.

Starke enumerated other rescue boats from NGOs such as Sea Watch and Sea Eye. He said there’s also a boat called Alan Kurdi, which is named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in September 2015 and whose picture became the poster for the migrants’ plight. “They have 13 migrants aboard now, but they are in a standoff position between Sicily and Malta waiting for a port of safety. So it’s only us currently in this particular search and rescue zone,” Starke said.

“Yesterday we rescued 50 people,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent conversation. “We will continue doing more rescues in the coming days. I expect that by the end of the week we will have survivors on board and then we hope to enter either Malta or Sicily, and then there are a few countries like Germany, France, Portugal, Luxembourg, who will say ‘We’ll take in these people.’”

Refugees aboard a blue rubber dinghy soon to be picked up by the Ocean Viking, August 2019. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)

The Institute for International Political Studies, an Italian think tank, estimates that 1,080 people have died in the central Mediterranean so far this year. There were 16,455 departures from Libya, it said, of which most were turned back by the Libyan coast guard, with 5,591 making it to Europe.

“The people we rescue tell us that they get these small boats from so-called migrant smugglers,” said Starke.

“These smugglers give them some petrol – some kerosene for the boats – sometimes they give them some navigation tools, but often they say, ‘Here, from the coast, you see over there on the horizon, there’s some light, that is Italy,’” Starke said. “What the migrants don’t know is that the light is coming from offshore oil rigs still in Libyan territorial waters, and so the ones leaving Libya don’t really have a clue how far Italy actually is.”

The actual distance between Tripoli and Malta is 193 nautical miles (222 standard miles).

Enter the Jewish community

The Central Welfare Board’s participation comes by way of Aktion Deutschland Hilft (ADH), an umbrella aid group made up of 23 member organizations. ADH issues calls to action for various causes it thinks members may support. Member organizations may then choose whether to respond to that call to action in the form of financial aid.

A rescue worker sits with refugees aboard the Ocean Viking, August 2019. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)

In the case of the Ocean Viking, only four or five groups answered the ADH’s call to action. The Central Welfare Board was among them.

Schuster is clear that the Central Welfare Board cannot and does not comment on political matters. But with Brexit looming, anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by immigrants on the rise, and far-right anti-immigration parties snapping up a growing portion of the vote – Germany’s own nationalist AfD party is now the largest opposition group in parliament – the move is perceived as a political tightrope walk.

“But if it comes to a matter of humanitarian aid,” Schuster said, “this is where we step in, and this is where we try to support according to our resources as much as possible.”

According to the UNHCR, 5.2 million refugees had reached European shores by the end of 2016. Eurostat puts the number of first-time asylum seekers at over 580,000 in 2018 alone.

Schuster said that because the Central Welfare Board is a nonprofit organization, they can’t put a vast amount of their own money into isolated missions such as the sea rescuing mission by the Ocean Viking, and the funding is of necessity limited. This is the third year that the Central Welfare Board is supporting SOS Mediterranee, having also answered the ADH call to action twice before.

The rescue ship Ocean Viking. (Anthony Jean/SOS Mediterranee)

In total, the ADH gave Euros 150,000 ($167,000) to SOS Mediterranee this year, Starke said. He said that the mission of the Ocean Viking costs $14,000 a day, and that most of the 1.3 million euros ($1.45 million) that his organization raised last year came from private individual donors giving anywhere from 10 to 100 euros.

It’s important in a mission such as this to appeal to as large an audience as possible, said Starke, emphasizing that there are human and legal obligations to what SOS Mediterranee is doing.

“Money is important to run this expensive mission, but the moral support is much more important for us,” Starke said.

“We face a lot of challenges and a lot of conflict within various parts of society who do think that the work we do is related to migration, and there’s often quite a bit of racism at the root of it. That’s why it’s very important to us to have a broad alliance, including the Welfare Board, to say they support this, and therefore there’s no question that people are not allowed to die,” he said.

SOS Mediterranee general director in Germany, David Starke. (Courtesy)

With German innovation, Israelis come to aid

The Central Welfare Board, said Laura Cazes, advisor on organizational development for the organization, might not have as much funding to dedicate to the Ocean Viking as it would like – but financial support is only one of the ways her group helps migrants and refugees.

“The issue of migration has always been one of the central tasks of the Welfare Board because the Jewish community, even before the Holocaust, has always been involved in this issue, of Jews from the East seeking better lives towards the West, and ending up in Germany,” said Cazes.

Cazes said that for the last 30 years, the Central Welfare Board has taken care of Jews coming from the former Soviet Union, as the post-Holocaust Jewish community in Germany multiplied six-fold from 20- to 30,000 before the government-supported influx to roughly 100,000 registered members today. The Central Welfare Board helped them find not only a place in the Jewish community, she said, but in wider German society, by supporting them with bureaucracy, facilitating language courses, and helping build infrastructure.

Laura Cazes, project coordinator for the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany. (Wolfgang Uhlig)

The expertise built up over the last decades was “up until now, always kind of a niche topic for the Jewish community,” said Cazes. “But now as so many people are coming into Germany seeking refuge, seeking asylum, we realize that the same questions are arising. So this is where we realized that there are several key best practices that we have, that we can use to support a soft landing of people seeking refuge here in Germany.”

Schuster said that while the Central Welfare Board didn’t have the resources or capacity to erect huge shelters or provide first aid, the organization was able to form a partnership with the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID and helped establish a national branch in Germany.

IsraAID brought in experts from Israel – social workers, psychologists, trauma experts – “and we used the connections that we have with the other big welfare organizations to basically provide the expertise of the experts from IsraAID in the facilities of other welfare organizations,” said Schuster, who now also sits on the board of IsraAID Germany.

“One of the things that are special about these trauma experts is that some of them are Arabic-speaking Israelis,” he said. “So, on top of the expertise in regards to the subject, there is also a cultural sensitivity towards the issues of people coming from Syria, for example.”

For this initiative, the Central Welfare Board won the prestigious National Integration Prize from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in 2018.

“Partnering up with an Israeli organization that then brought in Arabic-speaking specialists was seen as a very innovative twist, and a very direct measure, to face the huge cultural sensitivity that was needed in the wake of the crisis that most of the German welfare organizations simply didn’t have,” said Schuster.

“They didn’t have enough translators, they didn’t have enough experts that were able to directly communicate with refugees in their mother tongue, and this is where also the idea of not only taking care of the very basic needs of people, but forming structures to empower them in their everyday lives was perceived as a very innovative approach,” he said.

Schuster said that the Central Welfare Board is aware that there is a major concern within the Jewish community that people coming from the Middle East had “a different education with regards to Jews and Israel, and of course there is a fear of an increasing anti-Semitism in society with people coming in from Arabic countries.”

Refugees aboard the Ocean Viking look out over the Mediterranean Sea. (Hannah Wallace Bowman/SOS Mediterranee)

He said that the Central Welfare Board operates a center for the prevention of anti-Semitism and other discrimination.

“We are very aware of the fact that anti-Semitism exists; at the same time, practice tells us that anti-Semitism lies in every part of civil society, and furthermore, what is very important for us is that the fear of anti-Semitism does not justify being a bystander to a humanitarian crisis,” Schuster said. “So, as much as we are obliged to raise awareness on the issue of anti-Semitism, we are still obliged to fulfill our task as a welfare organization.”

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