“Whoever we don’t spare is lost, you always have to be aware of that,” says Bernd Norata from Mistelbach in light of the announced storm. The former regatta sailor has been involved in offshore rescue missions off the African coast since 2018.
During a recent rescue mission in the waters around the Italian island of Lampedusa, they also felt the refusal of the Italian government of Georgia Meloni to allow the rescued people to go ashore after they threatened to run out of fuel, medicine and supplies and landed in Calabria.
Norata devotes one month each year to sea rescues, mostly in the Mediterranean, three times off the Canary Islands: “It’s one of the most dangerous routes for refugees,” says Norata. Why does he do that? “I didn’t want to read in the newspaper that people were drowning again and that I could have done something,” says Mistelbacher. As a sailor, he has the necessary skills and uses them.
Refugee boats are hard to see
The rescue ship “Rise Above” was sailing in international waters about 30 nautical miles off Lampedusa when a refugee boat was sighted. The modus operandi of the rescue is a well-rehearsed operation: Norata is lowered into the water by Rhib’s lifeboat, and steered with two other assistants to the refugee boat, where people are gradually taken to “soar above”.
Even if everything went smoothly, the tension was high while people were being checked onto the ship, and the lifeboat was still on standby. Then Naurata noticed a dot on the horizon. Permission to look, the rescuers went out again.
Indeed: another boat, almost seaworthy, again with 30+ people crowded together on board. “They rejoiced when we came,” Reb Commander recalled. They had seen the first boat rescue and feared they might not be spotted.
“These boats aren’t big, you can only see them from a mile away,” Nawrata says. “It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.” No sooner had they been aboard Rise Above than the message arrived from a plane belonging to the NGO Mission Lifeline: another boat was nearby. A search began, and the wooden boat was only found with the help of an aircraft.
The atmosphere on board is explosive
Now 95 people, including 46 minors, eight children, 22 women, two of them pregnant, from sub-Saharan Africa and nine rescue workers aboard the 25-meter vessel: “We slept in the cramped quarters,” Mistelbacher, the crew themselves live Nine in a room below deck.
When many people live close to each other for a long time, friction cannot be ruled out: “You have to be very careful that everyone gets the same thing.” There is no second helping for food, clothing is only available if there is a pair of pants for everyone.
“It is enough for a quarrel if one of them sleeps where the other sleeps,” says the marine lifeguard. And in order not to change the mood on the plane, the topics of conversation that were not addressed are also clearly defined: when recording, they are not asked what they experienced during their escape, whether they were tortured or raped.
Six days of waiting on an overcrowded ship
For six days, the Italian authorities refused entry to the port. Only when there were several medical emergencies, when fuel threatened to run out and supplies were running low, were they allowed into Reggio di Calabera at the southern tip of Italy. In contrast to previous missions, this time the police officers were friendly towards the sea rescuers, with the captain even given a bag of peppercorns as a farewell gift. They said goodbye: “See you soon.”
Naurata and marine rescuers do not make friends everywhere, some call them smugglers. “The best thing is if we don’t have to do all this because the EU has its own marine rescue fleet. But the EU is not fulfilling its legal obligations to rescue people in distress at sea,” says Bernd Norata: “No one deserves to be drowned.”