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Meet the man who rescued 600 migrants on his boat, and thinks others could do the same

Sea Watch captain Ingolf Werth during the mission. (Courtesy of Ingolf Werth)

Thousands of migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in recent decades, but it's looking likely that 2015 will be the deadliest year on record.

This huge human toll is what led German businessmen Harald Höppner and Matthias Kuhnt to buy a ship, Sea Watch, to patrol the Mediterranean on their own, as WorldViews reported last year.

The ship and its crew recently returned from their first mission. WorldViews spoke to Ingolf Werth, the captain of the ship, about why they are doing what they are doing.

WorldViews: You spent the past two weeks trying to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. What did you experience?

Ingolf Werth: Overall, we were able to rescue about 600 people, and what strikes me most about it is that practically anyone could do the same. What makes me happy is that we were able to save the lives of all refugees we came across. Many of them would have died if we had not been there.

Many of them use inflatable dinghies to cross the sea. Out of the six boats we saw, about four were about to sink. They would certainly not have made it to Europe, which means that about 450 out of the 600 migrants would have died anonymously in the Mediterranean Sea.

WV: Are you implying that the numbers of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea frequently cited are way too low?

IW: Yes, for days, we were the only rescue ship in that area. Based on the numbers of migrants we rescued and the conditions of their boats, I assume that many more refugees die every day without being counted into any statistics.

WV: How did the migrants you rescued react to your presence?

IW: Reactions were very diverse. Some instantly panicked when they saw us because they thought we were Libyans who wanted to send them back to Africa. They told us: 'We would rather commit suicide here on the Mediterranean Sea than go back to where we came from.' Others, however, started to sing and to celebrate when they saw us.

We took aboard only those who were injured and needed immediate medical aid from our team. However, we had to rely on other ships to transport the refugees to Europe, because it would have taken us several days to reach European shores. We would have lost crucial time and would have been unable to rescue more migrants in distress at sea.

WV: To what extent were you supported by European Union patrol boats in the area?

IW: Well, we did see them docked in Italian ports. But we didn't see a single E.U. rescue boat in the sea in the proximity of Libya, where most migrants get into trouble. I tried to find out about the whereabouts of the E.U. boats because we were not able to handle the sheer masses of migrant boats in distress, but I was only told: 'Sorry, sir! There are no Frontex or Triton ships nearby.' [Frontex is the E.U. border control agency that carries out the Triton rescue mission.]

WV: Did you and your crew assume that this was a lie? 

IW: I fear that the official mission is much less extensive than the E.U. wants to make us believe. The E.U. is deliberately failing to rescue people. I think more and more people start to understand that the E.U. governments are not telling their citizens the truth: They say they rescue in the Mediterranean Sea, but, in reality, their engagement is far less extensive.

Whether or not they are hurting themselves by pursuing that strategy remains elusive: Many tankers and container ships cannot cross the Mediterranean Sea anymore without having to divert their route to rescue refugees. For many trading companies, the crisis has a disastrous effect.

WV: And what about E.U. plans to destroy migrant boats before they can leave North African ports? 

IW: Sending soldiers into these regions or asking others to destroy those boats would come close to a declaration of war against the human traffickers. I, personally, reject such ideas or proposals.

If the E.U. really wants to tackle the problem, it will have to consider the deeper origins of the crisis. European countries and other industrialized nations have long squeezed out African economies. For instance, Germany has exported chicken meat to Africa — and, consequently, destroyed local supply chains and forced farmers into bankruptcy. The dramatic increase in refugees has its real origins partially in Europe.

WV: Do you think that your small initiative could help change the E.U. stance on this issue? 

IW: Our project has been noticed by many people in Europe, and we have made people aware of the fact that there are ways to help. One of the main goals of our work, however, is to raise awareness about the E.U.'s failures in the Mediterranean Sea. We have come a long way since we started, but more challenges lie ahead. What makes me happy is that we have not faced a lack of applicants who want to help us aboard the Sea Watch.

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