Saving Lives In The Mediterranean: An Insider’s Perspective

Whereas most people only read in the news about the risks and horrors to which refugees are exposed in the Mediterranean Sea, there are also people who are actively trying to do something about it. Today, Youth Time speaks to Marko Den Hartogh, who works as the Head of Mission for the Boat Refugee Foundation and is based on the island of Malta. Get ready to find out about the nerve-wracking work he’s involved in trying to save the lives of refugees, and what you can actually do if you want to help.

Marko, how did a young Dutchman end up saving the lives of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea?

That is a short question with a long answer. I started to become interested in migration issues in university, where I did a Masters in International Relations at Antwerp. Migration is as old as time itself, it’s a force of nature. It’s a force that doesn’t sit well with our contemporary understanding of the nation state, and that friction, that field of tension, is what interests me. Swinging between left and right, migration issues still confuse my own value set on a daily basis – it’s a complicated topic – and that is what keeps it interesting for me.

As a trainee at the Dutch embassy in Turkey I saw the Syrian crisis develop back in 2012. I was also a trainee at the International Organisation for Migration in Senegal as well as the European Commission’s DG Migration and Home Affairs. So I’ve seen the global migration governance system from the inside. Larger bureaucracies do not have the same sense of urgency that NGOs do, which see human suffering first-hand on a daily basis. I wanted to make a more tangible contribution and was therefore very happy BRF gave me an opportunity to lead their Lesbos mission. 

When they started this mission, and they saw the work we did in Lesbos, they asked me to make the jump. BRF is a very hands-on organisation which can adapt to the needs of refugees and the local context within a number of hours, I still find it incredible. It’s a relatively new organisation which gives young people a lot of responsibility and the chance to gain invaluable working experience in a complicated humanitarian context.

How is working in the Mediterranean different from working on Lesbos?

It’s incredibly different in so many ways. First, because of the way that our work is being viewed in the media, but also by friends and relatives. Helping people in a camp is an image or narrative that people are familiar with and do not really question. Saving people from the water in the Mediterranean on the other hand, is being politicized as ‘finishing the job of people smugglers’. We are a non-political organisation and feel that the mass-drowning of people is not an answer to anything. Also, the difference between refugee and economic migrant is something that works for politicians, but means much less when you take someone out of the water. The story of the African route is one that is worth telling, it is one of extreme poverty, climate change, conflict, rape, coercion, misinformation, and criminal networks.

Secondly, when you work in a camp you get to know the people better, so you get more emotionally involved, and lines blur. At sea, you have your guests on board only for a number of hours.

Thirdly, on Malta we feel like pioneers. There was nothing there when we arrived, and we built the mission from scratch. On Malta there are only other NGOs who share your objectives. I have to say here that the cooperation with the other search and rescue NGOs is very good, almost family-like. There is no UN, no local mayor. The only government we work with is the Italian coast guard. On Lesbos on the other hand, the system was saturated with stakeholders and other players. You needed to play by many different sets of rules, imposed upon you by UNHCR, camp management or the government.  


Photo Archive: Marko Den Hartogh

What is the current-day situation in the Mediterranean in which you have to work?

The Mediterranean has seen an increase in people trying to make the crossing, mostly due to the closing of the Balkan route earlier this year. The demographics are different from Greece – there are people from all over Africa, mostly. But we’ve seen Syrian families making this dangerous journey who normally would have gone through Greece to reach Europe. Crossings also depend on the situation on the Libyan side. The Libyan coast guard is an organisation that, after the fall of Gaddafi, has been strapped for cash. Therefore rebels partially fill its ranks, and they execute symbolic push-backs of migrants, in order to apply for EU support. All of this can create a flux in the number of crossings that is hard to anticipate. The situation also depends on the weather; we’ve seen increasingly stormy weather recently. The season for crossings in a number of weeks will be ending due to worsening weather conditions in autumn and winter.

What is the main goal of the Boat Refugee Foundation? And how many people are working for it?

BRF seeks to provide aid and care to the most vulnerable among the boat refugees. In practice that means we supply many different forms of aid, but we try to stick to the ones that are most emergency-focused. The foundation started as a one-off effort, with just a few people on a beach holding a cardboard sign which said ‘nurse’. When the crisis really hit the Greek islands, the will to volunteer, donate, and organise really came together, and the foundation provided a platform for people who wanted to help. The foundation is now a strong network of like-minded people and has around 40 long-term volunteers and around 10-15 paid staff. Hundreds of people from all age groups and social backgrounds have volunteered for the BRF since its inception in May, 2015.  

Can you explain to us what your main responsibility is in the work you do for the Boat Refugee Foundation?

As Head of Mission in Malta I have a counterpart who goes to sea when I stay on land and vice versa, missions are normally two week periods: we effectively have the same job and work together closely. We clear the ship and the crew through customs when it goes into or out of port. I maintain contact with the Italian coast guard while on and off the ship: the Italian coast guard coordinates all search and rescue efforts off the Libyan coast. Finance, logistics and maintenance of the ship are also things that the Head of Mission is ultimately responsible for. At sea, we work with three teams; the medical team, the search and rescue team and the more generalist deck team. The better the teams perform, the less a Head of Mission has to do. He is there to coordinate the work of the teams and the captain of the ship, to make sure that everybody sticks to the rules and schedules, to lead safety drills, to manage information and distress calls that come in through the satellite phone. The Head of Mission will lead briefings and, together with the team, make the final call on what action to take.

What kind of experience do you need to be doing this kind of work?

That is a question I cannot answer, because I’ve seen too many amazing people without ‘the right profile’, and the other way around. Like I said, I am well versed in the political aspect but that is useful only to a certain extent. At the moment, knowing how to fix an engine will probably get you a spot on board as well. Because we work with volunteers, we get many different kinds of people. I still find it incredible that people from all walks of life, with no previous experience in humanitarian aid whatsoever, thrive in this environment and make magic happen on a daily basis. Underneath the jargon, humanitarian aid is a field which lends itself really well to very practical hands-on people. So if people want to get involved in aid work, I’d highly recommend them doing so.

Can you share one or two stories in which you felt you really made a difference?

I’d like to share one from Lesbos, because it’s one that I was personally very involved in. During Ramadan, many people in the Muslim world spend many hours in front of the TV at home. Programming is adjusted to the holiday season. In the camps on Lesbos, different national communities live side by side, the largest ones being the Syrian and the Afghan communities, often with tension between them. We organized both Arab and Farsi language movie nights during Ramadan. The movie night was especially well received by the Afghans, who receive fewer services in their native tongue and perceive the asylum system to be biased against them. They again saw movies in their own language, most of the time after months of travelling and harsh conditions. It seems like a small thing to do, but it boosted morale in the camp, people felt respected, and fights and other inter-communal tensions were noticeably reduced. 

Do you carry these intense experiences home from work with you, or can you let go of them easily?

I try to be a down to earth kind of guy, so at the end of the day I try to remember that I personally made a net positive contribution. There is much suffering in the world that needs relief, but if you start to carry all that weight on your own shoulders, you won’t last long and will burn out. The stories do affect me, but I am always humbled when people who do not really know me that well are willing to share. The stories I take home with me and I share them when appropriate with colleagues, family or friends; in order to tell the stories beyond the headlines.

Could you offer some advice to young people that are also interested in working with or offering help to refugees?

Please get involved. I understand it’s hard to do so from a distance and you’ll need to persist. Aid organisations, especially the bigger ones, are often closed to the outside and with their jargon make things look more complicated than they sometimes are. You don’t need a degree to help. You can start talking to people (online) that can help you; to people that have been to a hotspot and have done the work. Then think about what you can offer (money, time, resources, energy or exposure) and then organize yourself, find partners. Visiting a location yourself, if safe, also works well. Even though we screen our volunteers before we allow them to work with us, we’ve had cases in which we met people on Lesbos and they joined us on the spot.
Secondly, although I love working in the field, I recognize that getting refugees to safety is only a small part of the current European challenge. Working with refugees close to your own home, might be less ‘sexy’ than working in a camp but it’s just as if not more important if we are to make sure that these people really find a home. Because segregated societies will be detrimental to all, both host communities and refugees.

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