Refugee Rescue: ‘It’s a disgrace, we’re there to fill the gap’

Irish volunteers are saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea on vessel Mo Chara

Joby Fox will never forget his first sea rescue operation. It was a wild October night and the Northern Irish musician had just arrived in Greece after setting up a charity to support search and rescue operations in the Aegean Sea.

Like millions across the globe, Fox had seen the distressing images of bodies washing up on Greek and Turkish beaches. Like millions of others, he felt deeply depressed by what he saw. Unlike most others, he decided to do something about it.

"It occurred to me that this wasn't happening in Asia or somewhere in the Middle East, somewhere when you don't understand the dynamics," says Fox, speaking over Zoom from his home in Belfast. "This was on the shores of Europe, I felt a responsibility. I still get calls from universities around the world studying how ordinary citizens got up out of their armchairs and went there. They reckoned it was a bit of a phenomenon, but for me it's just human empathy. You can't accept children, men and women drowning."

Fox was not trained as a lifeboat responder and had arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in October 2015 to help with the logistics of rescue operations. He was standing on a secluded beach in the middle of the night, staring out at a rough and violent sea, when he spotted a boat on the horizon.

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The weather was atrocious and the boat itself was full of people. It ended up on the rocks and everyone was in the water. I got in the water, there were people everywhere screaming, trying to hold on to their children

He remembers one man started swimming back out to sea, seemingly to grab his backpack. “I thought it was one of the most foolish things I’d ever seen. I was shouting at him to come back and I could see he was getting tired. I was afraid I wouldn’t have the power to swim out and get him. Eventually he grabbed the bag and made it back.

“There was an 18-month-old child in that bag. That was the pivotal moment for me that ensured I wasn’t going to walk away. That stays with me, you never forget.”

The Refugee Rescue charity, which operates search and rescue operations in the Aegean and now Mediterranean seas, returned to the waters this summer with its rescue vessel Mo Chara. The charity’s crew and volunteers have saved more than 15,000 people from the water between 2015 and 2020, and have rescued nearly 1,200 people from the Mediterranean in recent months. The charity, which works in collaboration with the Sea-Eye German vessel, continued carrying out operations even when the Irish military’s hugely successful Operation Sophia drew to a close in 2019.

But charities such as Refugee Rescue can only do so much. Since 2014, 22,931 migrants have gone missing in the Mediterranean and Aegean. So far this year, 1,645 people have died attempting to make the perilous crossing, including 57 children.

These numbers do not include the 27 people who died in the English Channel last month, which reignited the conversation over which European states should take responsibility for these human beings and their safety.

On December 10th, the “Surrounded by Sea” photography exhibition launches in the Dean Arts Studio in Dublin and will run for three days. The exhibit will feature photographs taken by members of the public around Irish coasts along with photography from Ruth Medjber, Peadar Ó Goill and images from Refugee Rescue operations in the Aegean and Mediterranean.

The goal of the exhibition is not only to raise money for the charity’s rescue operations but to “draw the comparison of our own relationships to the sea with that of those forced to cross it for a better life, and indeed remember our own sad history of emigrating from this island by sea”, says Karen Cowley, who runs communication and advocacy for the charity.

Irish people are now in the privileged position of having a mainly positive relationship with the sea, says Cowley. “But for hundreds of years it was our only pathway out of deep sorrow, violence and poverty.

“The sea is a beautiful yet brutal place,” she adds. “It’s the politics around it that ends lives. People have the power to create safe passages.

“If you said to anyone in Ireland there was a boat stranded off the coast of Galway, we would never leave it there; the RNLI and Coast Guard would step in. You can’t leave someone to the mercy of the sea. So why is that different in the Mediterranean?”

Retired Inis Mór school principal and former RNLI volunteer Mícheál Ó Goill, whose photograph was taken by his son Peadar for the exhibition, agrees that there should be "no discrimination" when it comes to saving a person from the water.

The son and grandson of fishermen, Ó Goill was born and brought up on Inis Mór. The ocean has always been an inherent part of his life. He began volunteering with the lifeboat in his teens and watched over the years as the technology and facilities for rescue operations became more advanced, resulting in fewer deaths. He calls life by the water “idyllic” but says everyone on the island is deeply conscious and respectful of the ferocity of the ocean.

We all lost friends to the sea, especially in fishing boats at the time

"We didn’t take risks. There were lots of successes in our rescue operations, we had babies born on lifeboats. But it’s always sad when you’re out searching for bodies.”

He remembers his grandmother, who also lived on the island, talking about the long journey she made across the Atlantic shortly after the Famine. “She left on the equivalent of the famine boats, they were all sleeping in such cramped conditions. There were so many disasters with those boats; they didn’t have any proper navigating systems back then.”

The images of the men, women and children currently trying to cross the sea into southern Europe have echoes of that time, says Ó Goill. “It’s criminal what the people are doing, packing them into those boats and robbing them of their savings, as well as their lives. You feel sorry for the desperation of those people. They don’t know the danger they’re going into.”

Adam Cantwell-Corn, a first responder and RNLI-trained volunteer with Refugee Rescue, has witnessed this desperation at first hand. A journalist in Bristol by trade, he first volunteered off Lesbos in 2016 and then went to the central Mediterranean the following year to volunteer with a German organisation. He returned to the Mediterranean this summer with Refugee Rescue.

Like Ó Goill, he recalls learning during his RNLI training not to discriminate when saving people from the water. “The foundation is that we rescue anybody regardless of creed or background or circumstance that led to their distress. That’s a fundamental principle.”

He’s keen to underline that before charities appeared on the scene, Greek and Italian fishermen and local people were already out in the sea trying to save lives. “I do feel for the Greek and Italian societies and even governments because they’ve effectively been left to deal with this themselves.”

While Cantwell-Corn has not personally experienced any pushback from Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) or Greek or Italian authorities for his volunteer work, he describes the environment around rescue operations as “politicised and fraught”. He has also witnessed  instances of violence by the Libyan coast guard toward migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

He recalls rescuing a group of 29 people floating on a flimsy raft in the middle of the sea, including two pregnant women and two babies under two months, just minutes before the Libyan coast guard arrived on the scene. “If we’d been a few minutes later the Libyans would have picked them up and taken them back. Those people basically had a lucky escape.”

Cantwell-Corn feels inspired and heartened by the number of volunteers willing to give up their free time and offer their skills during the refugee crisis, but also says that “a more far-reaching solution is needed”.

“There needs to be more systematic and political solutions to all this. Why are these people being forced to leave their homes? How can the international community address the roots of the issues driving all this? Otherwise it’s only going to get worse and the response to the literal and metaphorical walls is not going to be sufficient.”

Meanwhile, as EU leaders discuss tactics on how to stem international people-smuggling networks and attempt to make sense of Europe’s increasingly dysfunctional migration policy, charities like Refugee Rescue will continue travelling to European coasts and saving lives.

Joby Fox worries that EU leaders are trying to “rewrite” and “skew the foundations” of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which obliges signatories to harbour those fleeing persecution. He also believes they are trying to scare off future volunteers through cases like that of Sean Binder, the 27-year-old Irish aid worker facing 25 years in jail for alleged people smuggling and espionage because of his search and rescue work in the Greek islands.

“Europe has pulled all its assets out of the Mediterranean. It’s a disgrace, so we’re there to fill that gap. We don’t have the jurisdiction to go beyond bringing them to land, we know exactly what our limitations are, and we operate under maritime law. Our attitude is that we pick people up and get them to dry land.

“This is a classic scenario of leaders needing to lead. They have the power to enact the human rights legislation and do the right thing. Instead, they think it’s going to go away. But it’s not going to go away.”

The Surrounded By Sea exhibition runs for three days from December 10th at the Dean Arts Studio on Harcourt Street, Dublin 2. For more, visit eventbrite.ie/e/surrounded-by-sea-exhibition-viewing-time-slot-tickets-219412176727