A recognition civilian search and rescue work and a reminder for the protection of human rights in the Mediterranean Sea
By Klaus Vogel, captain and historian, founder of SOS Mediterranee
The awarding of the Right Livelihood Award 2023, also called the “Alternative Nobel Prize”, to the European search and rescue organisation SOS Mediterranee is a great recognition and appreciation for the work of members of civil society who conduct rescues on the Mediterranean Sea. This signal for humanity comes at exactly the right time. With the European network SOS Mediterranee, which we founded in Berlin in 2015, the Alternative Nobel Prize pays tribute to all those who dedicate all their efforts to rescuing people in the Mediterranean and support them, including all members and supporters of SOS Humanity who have a special connection to their former network SOS Med.
As a merchant ship captain, I gave up my long-term occupation with the shipping company Hapag-Lloyd in November 2014 after the Italian search and rescue operation “Mare Nostrum” was called off. Since the beginning of 2015 I have been committed to setting up a civilian, European search and rescue organisation in the Mediterranean under the name SOS Mediterranee. Together with European citizens, we founded SOS Mediterranee as a European network on 9 May 2015 in Berlin with associations in Germany, France, Italy and later in Switzerland. Together we operated the rescue ship Aquarius since January 2016 and the Ocean Viking since 2019. By the end of 2021, we had rescued 34,631 children, women and men from drowning with both rescue ships and brought them to a place of safety.
In January 2022, the German founding association broke away from the SOS Mediterranee network in order to to rescue more people in the central Mediterranean as SOS Humanity with its own ship Humanity 1. With the experience of seven years of SOS Mediterranee, we rescued a further 1,608 people with Humanity 1 since August 2022. This has been made possible by many committed citizens as well as our humanitarian partner organisations, who do not want to stand idly by and continue to provide sustained support for our search and rescue missions.
At the same time, it is shocking to experience that in our liberal European Union, which committed itself to the protection of universal human rights in the Charter of Fundamental Rights as recently as December 2000, we are not only supported in our efforts to rescue people seeking protection in the Mediterranean, but at the same time repeatedly blocked and obstructed. To this day, many European governments refuse to fulfil their duty to rescue people in distress at sea and bring them to a place of safety.
Large parts of European politics use the Mediterranean as a bulwark against migrants. In this deep trench off Europe lie hundreds of sunken refugee boats and thousands of corpses. This is a mass grave off the coast of Europe. With our elected politicians, we as citizens of Europe bear the responsibility for this. One day not too distant from now, historians will ask why the citizens and politicians of Europe knowingly allowed many thousands of innocent people in dire need to die in the Mediterranean.
The concrete policy of the European Union at its external borders, such as the Mediterranean, is increasingly driven by defensiveness and fear; it is inhumane, xenophobic and racist. This policy must end immediately. We must create alternative, safe routes for refugees. When people’s lives are in danger, we must rescue and protect them. Without humanity, migration cannot be shaped positively. We must continue to do everything we can to rescue people on the move in the Mediterranean and bring them to a place of safety – in accordance with maritime and international law and our humanitarian values. For this, we need a state-coordinated European search and rescue programme at sea that is supported by civil society. This is the only way can we preserve European democracy based on solidarity and universal human rights.