Picturing Refugees

Before and After a Mediterranean Volunteer Voyage

In the latest in our series ‘Picturing Refugees,’ Sea-Watch’s Theresa Leisgang and photographer Moritz Richter present a series of portraits of volunteers before and after a rescue mission on the Mediterranean Sea.

Written by Theresa Leisgang, Moritz Richter Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Every day people drown in the Mediterranean, yet images of shipwrecks find their way less and less into mainstream news.

Europe may have become accustomed to the crisis but Owen Thurgate has not. The forester from Wales signed up as a volunteer for a search and rescue mission for the first time last year. Deflating rubber boats, the bright orange of life jackets against the backdrop of a deep blue sea, a father crying for lost loved ones are just some of the images that have been burned into his memory.

Images of boats and camps still prevail because they simplify refugee issues when, for some, the whole picture seems too much to grasp. They eliminate interrelated drivers and contributing factors like climate change, neo-colonial economics or the dilemmas of nation-state sovereignty in a globalized world.

We have taken pictures of Thurgate and his crew aboard the volunteer vessel, Sea-Watch, before and after their mission last May. The portraits are accompanied by some very personal observations by the people themselves. The images and captions give a voice to the volunteers – those who are fighting for a safe passage.

(Moritz Richter)

In his normal life, Owen Thurgate works as a forester in Wales. During his mission with Sea-Watch, he was responsible for transporting the life jackets in a speedboat:

“It was our third day out at sea when I took this little baby girl on my boat. She was called Destiny. Only hours before the rescue, her mother had died on the beach in Libya giving birth. The father had to abandon her dead body in the sand, setting off in the rubber boat without her. I think I just said ‘So sorry’ to him and felt quite guilty a second later because that triggered something and he began sobbing on my shoulder.

“This story brought it home to me how all of us know that things are going on in the world but we are too busy to get involved. When I heard this man crying, I found you can’t just push it to one side anymore. I felt really sad and angry about the injustice and at the same time so frustrated that we couldn’t do more. Politicians don’t want to be aware of these individual life stories. So it’s really good being part of a crowd like Sea-Watch where people care about other human beings.”

(Moritz Richter)

Stefanie Pender joined Doctors Without Borders (MSF) a couple of months after returning home to Australia. Defending human rights was the only option after her experience with Sea-Watch:

“These two weeks made me question the humanity of our world. One afternoon was so overwhelming it felt like we had to be on another planet. The Sea-Watch already had hundreds of refugees on board from the day before and three of us went with our speedboat to find more people in distress.

“Around us was only bright blue sea and dark spots in the distance – sinking boats. My memory is a blur. Three of us pulling unconscious people off sinking boats. Resuscitating them before even getting back to a rescue ship. Handing out life jackets and trying to calm the screaming people. And as the sun went down, with no life jackets left, handing out glow sticks to help locate the boats in the dark.

“The most dire realization was that no one was coming to help the NGOs. I felt helpless. The only doctor for hundreds on board while over a thousand were still in the water needing rescue. Despite the situation, one man started singing a song of hope to the moon. That gave me strength.”

(Moritz Richter)

Filmmaker Raoul Kopacka sent voice messages to his girlfriend in Vienna to process what he had seen. Every now and then, his voice cracks, he pauses for a moment, continues with a new recording:

“Hello, I am pretty exhausted, that was a really long day. I totally understand that you have a million questions. The situation here is fucked up, crazy. I have a headache, only slept for two hours, I‘m super emotional. After the interviews with those we rescued from the boats, I actually just wanted to find a quiet place and cry. You hear stories of rape and murder and torture and slavery.

“The hardest thing is to see what these people have gone through and you can’t even really feed them because 270 people is way too many for our ship. We’re all alone in the middle of the sea, the Rescue Coordination Center in Italy simply doesn’t send help. We’ve already heard that boats have sunk and people died out there today.

“Wish you were here, the world sucks. What can you do but carry on, drag people out of the water, that’s the only thing that feels right at the moment. I hope my videos can somehow show how fucked up the whole system is.”

(Moritz Richter)

Political scientist Sandra Hammamy has researched refugee and migrant movements for years. In 2015, she could no longer stand by and watch as people were drowning in the Mediterranean. She reports:

“For the first time I experienced how helpless you are when facing armed authorities. On May 10, we found a refugee boat with over 400 people on board. As always, we launched our speedboat to make contact with the people. When we were close I called out: Everything will be alright, you are safe! Suddenly we got a panicked radio alert to immediately return to the Sea-Watch. Out of nowhere came a Libyan military boat. They drew their weapons and came straight for us. We had no option but to retreat.

“I will never forget how the people on that boat begged us, ‘Please don’t leave us alone.’ We had to watch while guns were pointed at them and they were brought back to Libya. International law prohibits the return of people to countries where they could be tortured. It is outrageous that the E.U. cooperates with coast guards who violate all regulations. These politics make me incredibly angry. Where is the outcry? We need more protests in Europe!”

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