Harald Höppner and Matthias Kuhnt with their boat. (Ruben Neugebauer/Sea-Watch)

Harald Höppner and Matthias Kuhnt could have spent their savings on houses or cars. Instead, they decided to rescue refugees.

Thousands of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in recent years. The two CEOs of a mid-size company in eastern Germany had followed the news of capsized refugee boats in the Mediterranean Sea with growing outrage — and finally decided to buy a ship to patrol the Mediterranean on their own.

The idea first came up in November, when Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Back then, Höppner and Kuhnt decided to raise awareness about another, even more deadly barrier: the Mediterranean Sea.

"We realized that only hundreds of miles away from Germany, we are in the process of erecting a new and similar border. Last year alone, more people died along E.U. borders than during the 27 years the Berlin Wall separated Germany," Kuhnt told The Washington Post. Human rights organization have repeatedly claimed that the European Union does not do enough to rescue refugees in distress.

Since October, the two businessmen have invested a total of $162,000 in a 21-meter-long ocean-going ship. Some of the money might be refinanced through donations collected on a Web site set up for the initiative.


(Ruben Neugebauer/Sea-Watch)

Next month, Höppner and Kuhnt want to maneuver the ship to Malta, from where they will start their three-month-long mission. If everything goes according to plan, they will not be alone on board: Dozens of volunteers have registered to join the mission for two-week rotations. 

The private operation will start in mid-May, which is the beginning of a long summer during which many refugees risk the journey. Some, however, have been skeptical of whether a 21-meter-long boat can rescue dozens or even hundreds of refugees in distress.

Höppner and Kuhnt argue that the boat is supposed to be only the vanguard. "We will have inflatable life rafts and drinking water for about 500 people on board. If we come across a boat in distress, we will [send an] alarm [to] the Italian or Maltese coast guard. The authorities will hardly be able to ignore a distress call from a German crew," Kuhnt said. Refugees who are rescued by European coast guards are usually transported to camps on E.U. soil and are able to apply for asylum.

Despite positive reactions to his project, Kuhnt is aware that this strategy is likely to alienate some in Europe: "We won't allow refugees on board of our own ship because that might cast suspicion on us of being illegal traffickers," he said.

The search-and-rescue operation is supposed to focus on a relatively small area between Libya and Italy. According to estimates by Frontex, the E.U. agency for border management, at least 40,000 people who tried to enter the European Union last year used the route from Libya and Tunisia. The area is not only the main pathway for refugees, but is also traversed by older and more flimsy vessels, prone to capsizing.


Estimates of the number of refugees who were killed while trying to reach Europe vary widely. In one of the most frequently cited studies, a joint research project of European journalists recently found that at least 23,000 people had lost their lives in the past 14 years.

"The number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, a sea with many busy shipping lanes where international law and centuries of custom oblige ships to assist those in need, is shocking," Human Rights Watch concluded in 2012.

Three years later, two Germans have vowed to force private vessels as well as the E.U. to take on this responsibility. "Of course we hope that others will imitate us," Kuhnt told The Post.

"We hope that the thousands of yacht owners in the Mediterranean Sea will become more aware of the problem due to our project. In Germany, our idea has already exceeded our expectations: Hundreds of people reach out to us every day and ask us how they can contribute," Kuhnt said.

Related: 

To some, the E.U.’s deadly border is the new Berlin Wall

How smugglers bring desperate migrants across the Mediterranean

Migrants dying in Mediterranean by the thousands as they flee turmoil in Libya, Syria