- Caroline Willemendeputy head of mission for search and rescue with Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders.
At least 67 people, including children, died in a shipwreck Sunday off the coast of southern Italy, and rescue workers fear the death toll could climb above 100 as they recover more bodies from the sea. It is believed to be the deadliest migrant shipwreck of its kind in almost a decade. Almost 26,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014, but many governments have responded by criminalizing rescue efforts by humanitarian groups. Just days before this latest shipwreck off the coast of Italy, the Italian government of far-right leader Giorgia Meloni approved a new law making it harder for humanitarian aid rescue vessels to carry out their missions. For more, we speak with Caroline Willemen, a search and rescue leader with Médecins Sans Frontières, which has had one of its ships detained by Italian authorities as part of the new measures, blocking it from going to sea to save lives for at least 20 days.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to the death toll in Italy reaching 67 after a boat carrying up to 200 people seeking refuge in Europe fell apart over the weekend near the Italian city of Crotone. At least 16 of the victims were children. Around 80 survivors were pulled to safety after they were found in the water clinging to pieces of the ship, which had departed the Turkish city of Izmir a few days earlier. Some of the survivors are children who lost their whole families in the shipwreck. Rescuers said many of the passengers were from Afghanistan. Others came from Iran, from Syria and from Somalia. On Tuesday, some relatives of the victims went to a sports hall in Crotone to identify the bodies of their loved ones.
VICTIM’S RELATIVE: The police show us a picture and say, “Do you — it’s your family?” And we should to give answer for yes or not. And we —
REPORTER: And did you recognize them?
VICTIM’S RELATIVE: Yes. Yes.
REPORTER: And what did you think when you saw them?
VICTIM’S RELATIVE: I’m not [inaudible]. It’s happened. It’s happened. So, I saw my now [inaudible] —
VICTIM’S RELATIVE: [inaudible] two daughters, [inaudible] my children, five years, is lost.
AMY GOODMAN: Another relative of the victims questioned why more wasn’t done to save the passengers on the boat.
TEYMOORI MOHAMMAD: They don’t find to rescue the people. They tell always a human right. Because they have their black hair or they don’t have green or blue eyes, they didn’t rescue these people. I don’t know how the people, they’re telling about their human right. Because they have the black eye or the black hair, they weren’t human.
AMY GOODMAN: Since 2014, almost 26,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean, but many governments have responded by criminalizing rescue efforts by humanitarian groups. Just days before the shipwreck off the coast of Italy, the Italian government of the far-right leader Giorgia Meloni approved a new law making it harder for humanitarian aid rescue vessels to carry out their missions. Doctors Without Borders, MSF, said their rescue ship was detained by Italian authorities just last week as part of the new measures, blocking it from going to sea to save lives for at least 20 days.
We’re going now to Brussels, to Belgium, to speak with Caroline Willemen. She is deputy head of mission for search and rescue at Médecins Sans Frontières. That’s Doctors Without Borders.
Caroline, welcome to Democracy Now! This horror at sea and your ship basically confiscated, detained by the Italian government — explain everything that took place.
CAROLINE WILLEMEN: Yeah, indeed. So, it’s an extremely, extremely cynical situation, and I can only follow the words that the person was speaking earlier of “Where do we see our right to speak about human rights?”
So, indeed, on Thursday evening, our ship was informed by the Italian authorities that we will be detained for a period of 20 days. We will not be able to carry out our life-saving work, which is indeed a result of this new legislation that was put in place by the Italian authorities. And the detention actually is only part of already the way that this legislation is reducing our capacity to carry out rescues. We are now also forced to return to port as soon after one rescue, which means that we can rescue much less people every time that we go out to rescue people. So, just to give you an idea, before this legislation, we used to rescue, on average — we used to do more than four rescues and rescue over 280 people each time, while now we are allowed to do only one rescue, which might be 50 people, up to 100 people. And the question is, of course: Where are those people who are not rescued by us?
So, indeed, our work is being blocked, while, unfortunately, these horrendous tragedies keep happening. I want to make clear, as well, that there is a lot more media attention in this case because the tragedy happened so close to Italy, but this is something that happens on a quite, unfortunately, regular basis, also very often closer, for example, to the Libyan coast, of people leaving the Libyan shores, and very often that news will not even reach Western media.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policies being enforced by EU nations like Italy, especially given the fact that right now many of these same European countries are opening their doors to refugees from the war in Ukraine, and yet they’re increasingly shutting the doors to refugees from the Global South?
CAROLINE WILLEMEN: Exactly. I think what we’ve seen in the past year in terms of the welcoming of refugees fleeing Ukraine, to be very clear, which is exactly what we should be doing, and that is exactly the welcome that anybody fleeing persecution, fleeing war deserves, according — I mean, I don’t even want to mention what I might want to believe in the little humanity that we have left to receive people, to welcome people, but also, according to international law, it’s not solely a humanitarian imperative, let’s say. And so, indeed, what we’ve seen over the past year also shows that it is not a matter of it not being possible. It’s a matter of lack of political will, because the open doors policy, again, so very rightly applied to people fleeing Ukraine, has not been applied to people fleeing from other countries.
And so, it has been several years that, in Italy, amongst other countries in Europe, indeed, the work of NGOs has been made more difficult. In previous years, there has been criminalization of individuals working for NGOs. We’ve had to face discriminative practices of port state controls. So, in itself, no issue with the port state control; in itself, no issue with, let’s say, also COVID quarantine measures. We are a medical organization. Of course we support medical quarantine measures when they make sense. But you have to ask yourself some questions when measures are being applied much more strictly for search-and-rescue NGOs than for others. And so, this is what we see now, as well, in this new legislation that has come out that targets only NGOs doing search-and-rescue work. Keep in mind that the vast majority of people who arrive in Italy, either they manage to arrive autonomously or they are rescued by the Italian Coast Guard, but the legislation targets only NGOs, which says quite a lot.
And so, that’s where we have the main point of being allowed to do only one rescue. And also, in the last few months, every time we are assigned a port, we are assigned ports that are hundreds of kilometers away from the area where we would normally disembark people, so this is adding several days to our journey with survivors on board, but also as we then want to return to the search-and-rescue area to do our work, it takes us more — like, we lose time, I think is the correct way of saying it, because every day that we are not in the area where normally we do rescues, people risk to lose their lives. People also risk to be intercepted by Libyan Coast Guard, which are, to this day, still supported by the European Union, by the Italian government. And people who are intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard will be returned to Libya. They will be returned to detention centers. They will be abused. They will be extorted. They are essentially returned back to the hell that they are trying to flee. And, indeed, so this has —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I —
CAROLINE WILLEMEN: Sorry. Go ahead.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I wanted to ask you: In terms of those refugees who do make it to Europe alive, what kind of conditions do they face in countries like Italy or Belgium, where you’re from? You’ve also worked in the refugee camps in Greece. Could you talk about the conditions that they face?
CAROLINE WILLEMEN: Yeah. So, it’s been a few years now that I was working in Greece, but I think there we’ve seen a very similar — in the end, it’s all part of a wider European deterrence policy, so basically trying to deter people from approaching Europe. I worked in a camp for asylum seekers, an official European camp for asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos. There was space for 3,000 people. At its peak, there were 20,000 people there, so you cannot imagine how overcrowded it was — insufficient access to water and sanitation facilities, insufficient space for people. It became very insecure because of these conditions.
And at this very day, as a — on this very day, as a Belgian citizen, I know that a few kilometers away from my door, there are several asylum seekers, who have a right to access to reception centers by the government, are sleeping in freezing temperatures on the street, and have been for about six months at this point. So, indeed, what we see happening in Italy is unfortunately part of a wider policy at European level that has been going on for many years.
AMY GOODMAN: And I remember when we went to Calais, what was the largest refugee camp in, I think, all of Europe at the time, called “The Jungle” by the people inside. It looked like the countries that the people were from were a map of the countries the United States had bombed, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria. Can you talk about who was on this ship, who died?
CAROLINE WILLEMEN: So, the information that we have so far is, indeed, Afghanistan is for sure a country that comes forward. Iran is a country that comes out. Then there’s a few different nationalities that have been named. I’ve heard Somalia being mentioned, as well. I’ve heard Pakistan being mentioned, as well. And I think this is very much in line also with the people that I’ve met on board of our rescue ship who were coming out of Libya. Despite the geographical location of Libya, I met people also coming out of Syria. We met people from Afghanistan, from Pakistan. And the same thing when we were on the island of Lesbos last time I was there, the majority of people arriving were coming from Afghanistan. We have people coming also from Eritrea, from Nigeria. So, many people, very clearly, fleeing countries in conflict.
And then, when speaking about the route of people who come through Libya, there, for sure, we also come across people who have moved towards Libya because they don’t have any, any, like, economic opportunities in their own countries, so they look for work in Libya, but then they get trapped in this horrendous cycle of exploitation, basically, of forced labor. And that’s what eventually pushes them to leave Libya, where the only way out is indeed taking the sea.
And let it be very clear, in general, people know, understand very well how dangerous it is, but which only goes to say how dangerous the places are that they’re fleeing from. I think it’s the cliché that always comes back, but there’s a reason why it’s a cliché, because it’s so very true. Like, people wouldn’t put their children on a boat if the sea did not seem like a safer option than the place they are fleeing from. I have worked in Afghanistan myself. So, yeah, I think at some point you start seeing the whole range of the places that people leave, up to the places where people arrive and the horrendous welcome that they receive, or the lack of welcome that they receive.
AMY GOODMAN: Caroline, we just have 30 seconds. What are you calling for? When is the Geo Barents, your ship, being released by the Italian government? But go broader than that.
CAROLINE WILLEMEN: We should be released in 15 days. Obviously, we should be released now. Every single day that we are not there, people might die. People might be returned to Libya. We need state-led search and rescue. And most of all, if anything was shown by the drama on Sunday, we need safe passage and safe and legal routes for people fleeing to reach Europe alive, at the very, very least.
AMY GOODMAN: Caroline Willemen, we want to thank you for being with us, deputy head of the mission for search and rescue at MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières — that’s Doctors Without Borders — speaking to us from Brussels.
Next up, we go to the oral arguments Tuesday in two cases challenging Biden’s student debt forgiveness program. Stay with us.