Handing the migrants to the Libyans was not an option - Lifeline captain interviewed
'They say it’s better to die than to go back to Libya'
Claus-Peter Reisch, captain of the migrant rescue vessel Lifeline, has direct experience of the human tragedy that plays out to the south of Malta. He spoke to Philip Leone-Ganado.
Claus-Peter Reisch has endured a surreal few weeks. As captain of the migrant rescue vessel MV Lifeline, he found himself stranded on the high seas for six days at the end of June with 234 migrants aboard, while Malta and other European countries bickered over who would take responsibility.
A solution was found in an ad-hoc agreement between Member States to distribute the migrants among themselves, but no sooner had the vessel entered Malta than the captain found himself hauled to court on charges of steering an unregistered boat in Maltese territorial waters, due to alleged issues with the Lifeline’s certification.
He is also accused by the Maltese government of breaching international law by not handing the migrants over to the Libyan coastguard when requested.
But speaking to The Sunday Times of Malta from the hotel in Cospicua where he is staying while his court case unfolds, Mr Reisch insists this was never an option.
“The Libyans approached our boat in international waters and wanted us to hand over the migrants,” Mr Reisch said. “We sent our RHIB over and they came aboard. But as I went down to meet them, one of the migrants – a man from Bangladesh, maybe 35 years old, fell to his knees and grabbed my legs. This grown man was crying and shaking, begging me not to send him back. He said he’d kill himself first. Can you imagine that?”
On an earlier rescue on the same mission, he said, some migrants leapt into the sea when they saw an American military vessel – which did not participate in the rescue – mistaking it for the Libyan coast guard.
“They say it’s better to die than to go back to Libya. They come from detention camps, where they don’t give them food or water, they beat them, they rape the women. Dying is better than going back to these camps.”
This grown man was crying and shaking, begging me not to send him back. He said he’d kill himself first
Sitting alongside his first officer Martin Ernst – himself a veteran of 24 missions involving the rescue of some 5,000 people – Mr Reisch also shed light on the situation aboard the Lifeline as the six-day standoff played out.
“The people were destroyed, almost paralysed. As soon as they came on board, they fell on the floor and just lay there,” he said. “It’s always strange to see: you see it on TV, but the reality is completely different. You realise the real distress these people are in.”
The crew worked through the night to keep the ship running and the migrants in good health, not knowing how long the situation could last and thinking only hour to hour. One migrant had to be evacuated for urgent medical treatment and the ship’s doctor advised that others could follow, prompting discussions over whether to issue a distress call and force an end to the saga.
“This would have been the end of all diplomatic possibilities,” Mr Reisch said. “If we had sent a distress call from Maltese waters, by law it would all have been on Dr Muscat. We chose to wait for the political discussion. The European governments were the lucky ones in this dirty game.”
In the last week, the “dirty game” has intensified, with Malta closing its ports to all NGO rescue vessels and preventing those based on the island from operating, a move denounced by humanitarian organisations and also the Church.
It has also blocked the spotting plane Moonbird, operated by the NGO Sea Watch, which has been involved in the rescue of some 20,000 people.
Mr Reisch is unequivocal about the consequence of these decisions: 628 people drowned crossing the Mediterranean in June, and he expects the situation to worsen.
“This month will be the deadliest in the whole history of boat migration,” he said. “Boats will continue to leave Libya. With the search aircraft stuck as well, a curtain closes: there is no possibility of bearing witness to what is going on in the rescue zone. Nobody can testify to what is happening and so, officially, nothing is happening, nobody is dying.”
The real number of the dead is about twice or three times more than what is reported.
The NGOs’ role, he suggests, goes beyond actual rescues to giving sense and scale to the unfolding crisis.
“The ‘dark number’, the real number of the dead, is about twice or three times more than what is reported,” Mr Reisch said. “Many times we’ve found capsized boats, completely empty. The people on board may have been picked up by the Libyan coast guard or they may have drowned. Nobody knows what’s happened to them.”
The ‘dark number’, the real number of the dead, is about twice or three times more than what is reported
He rejects arguments that the rescue vessels themselves act as a pull factor drawing people to attempt the deadly crossing, pointing to the fact that a week into the NGOs’ enforced absence, there has been no change in the number of boats leaving Libya.
And while he says he understands fears in Malta and Europe over migration, he insists this can never be justification for allowing people to drown.
“I’m not of the opinion that everyone in Africa can come to Europe,” he said. “I agree that we have to stop this, but we have to stop this in the countries the people are fleeing from, not by building a fence, and not in Libya, when it’s already too late.”
He drew attention to the role European governments continue to play in the problems plaguing countries of origin, and insisted a European solution must be found – that countries like Malta and Italy could not bear the burden alone and that other countries must step up and fulfil their obligations of solidarity.
The ad-hoc diplomatic agreement reached to bring the Lifeline to port, he said, could point to one potential way forward: “Malta could work as a terminal: receiving migrants in distress before they are distributed to other countries.”
Asked about his own situation, Mr Reisch expressed hope the court case could be resolved quickly, displaying some bemusement that the ship’s certificate had become the main point of discussion.
Yet despite being a volunteer who paid his way to Malta for the mission out of pocket, he had no doubts when asked whether the work was worth the situation he now found himself in.
“Right now, I want to go home. I have a 92-year-old mother. Her birthday is in a few days. I want to be home for that because you don’t know how many more there are going to be. Instead I’m sitting here in Malta,” he said.
“But would I do this again? Of course. Saving lives is a duty, not a crime. If we don’t do this work, who will?”