(POLITICO) Dariush Beigui has a day off, but he’s not happy about it.
For much of the past four years, the German skipper of a refueling boat in the port of Hamburg has traded in his vacation and overtime to join civilian rescue ships saving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
That is, until last summer, when he became the target of an investigation in Italy — Beigui and nine other rescue ship crew members face up to 20 years in jail.
Since then, he’s been stuck drifting along Hamburg’s quiet canals and waterways. And for every day he’s not out at sea, he says, he knows people are drowning.
“We’re being forbidden to help people,” he says. “It doesn’t get more malicious than that. It’s one thing to say ‘People are drowning and I don’t want to help them.’ It’s another to then forbid others from helping.”
Italian, Maltese and Greek authorities have used anti-smuggling laws to prosecute volunteers.
Beigui’s case is not an isolated one. Over the past five years, 250 people have been arrested, charged or investigated for their work with migrants and refugees, according to research by openDemocracy, a U.K.-based political website focused on democracy and human rights.
Aid organizations have alleged intimidation, threats and arbitrary checks of volunteers working with migrants near the French port city of Calais, as well as in other hotspots in Greece and Italy. In Belgium, 11 people, including two journalists, have been arrested and charged with human trafficking for allowing migrants to stay in their homes or lending them phones.
Italian, Maltese and Greek authorities have used anti-smuggling laws to prosecute volunteers, accusing them of colluding with smugglers and aiding illegal entry, with at least five open investigations against NGO boats and their crew this year, according to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. Beigui and the other crew members of the Iuventa, a ship operated by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, are being investigated on suspicion of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” and working with Libyan smugglers.
In Italy, authorities are refusing to grant ships run by NGOs access to Italian waters and ports. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister who has accused the EU of leaving the country alone to deal with the influx of migrants and refugees, declared ports closed to NGO ships in June 2018 and introduced heavy fines for ships that ignore “bans and limitations” on accessing Italian waters.
The most recent target of the crackdown is Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old German captain of Sea-Watch 3, who was put under house arrest for breaking Italian law to dock at the port of Lampedusa and offload 40 people who had been rescued two weeks earlier. Salvini called her a “danger to national security” and disparaged the judiciary’s decision last week to release her. She’s now living in a secret location in Italy while she waits for a hearing in the preliminary investigation against her.
It’s “shameful,” says Beigui, that Rackete was forced to break the law to bring people to safety. “She did the only right thing — what else could she have done?”
But he cautioned against pointing the finger only at Italy. “I’m not on Salvini’s side, by a long shot, but the idea that Europe has left Italy out in the cold is right,” he says.
Rackete’s calls for help to Malta were rebuffed; the Netherlands didn’t answer. No other government offered assistance. “European politicians are up in arms now, but where were they two weeks ago?”
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Beigui’s journey to the Mediterranean started in the port of Hamburg.
In the spring of 2015, as European politicians started to talk about a “migration crisis” and rubber dinghies overladen with people splashed across evening broadcasts, a piece of local news caught Beigui’s attention: The German NGO Sea-Watch had bought an old fishing boat and was refurbishing it in the port. Volunteers were planning to sail into the fray and save lives in the Mediterranean.
Beigui’s work took him past the site most days. He kept tabs on progress. Mostly, he was just curious. He assumed working on a vessel headed for the Mediterranean required expensive licenses or certificates, none of which he had.
Beigui, who is half Iranian, grew up in Hamburg not really caring much about the port on his doorstep. It was part of his life in the way it still is for most teens: In the summer, he’d stay out all night at the bars along the Reeperbahn, then go to the fish market in the morning and sleep it all off on the beach. He came across the skipper job on a listings website, and learned the ropes at a ferry company. Now he works on a Bunkerboot, or what he describes as a floating gas station, driving up and down the port servicing larger ships with diesel.
By the time he found out he didn’t need any extra licenses, the Sea-Watch already had a full crew. But he signed up to help at the next opportunity, and in November 2016 he flew to Malta to join the Iuventa. He had never been out on the open seas.
“You can’t really prepare yourself for what you see,” he says, sitting on the deck of his boat in the port of Hamburg one recent afternoon. “I had read about the rubber dinghies, sure, but I wasn’t ready to see it all live in the sea in front of me. I started to cry the first time.”
Beigui, a fan of punk rock, is wearing all black, despite the summer heat — faded black polo shirt, black pants with silver zippers up the sides and heavy black boots. What’s visible of his arms, neck and hands is covered in tattoos. (“They don’t really mean much,” he says, pointing to his wrists, where he’s inked Backbord and Steuerbord, the German words for port and starboard. The cartilage of his right ear says rein, or in; the left says raus, out.)
He didn’t understand the sea well enough to lead a crew on his first mission, he says. Unlike the tides in the port of Hamburg, which he knows “like the back of my hand,” the waves in the Mediterranean seemed to crash in from all directions at random, and he couldn’t discern a pattern to their movements or to the weather. It was unsettling not to be able to see the shore on the horizon.
“I remember thinking at the time, why are there all these civilian boats out here saving lives, what’s gone wrong here?” Beigui says. “Highly trained, well-paid professional should be doing this. Not some volunteer punk from Hamburg.”
“You have a very clear idea of what it would be like to be in need and no one helps you” — Dariush Beigui, rescue boat captain
Volunteer crews typically train for about a week before they set out on a two- to three-week mission. It takes some time to figure out how the boat works, where the exits and stairs are, what kind of equipment you’re working with. For Beigui, it wasn’t about learning to tie knots, but wrapping his head around the enormity of the sea — and how quickly boats, and people, can disappear in it.
Early on, as part of a training exercise, he took out one of the Iuventa’s small inflatable dinghies and motored out far enough that he and his crew mates couldn’t see the boat.
He knew that in all likelihood, the boat couldn’t see him either. Even when the waves aren’t all that high, a small dinghy lying low on the water will disappear from view in the valley between them. It’s extremely rare, he says, that you’ll spot a rubber dinghy by accident, even with a pair of binoculars. In most cases, authorities or other boats will alert you to a boat they’ve seen.
“I immediately felt completely abandoned at sea,” he says. “I thought, OK, I’m a European, I’ve got a satellite phone with me and a life jacket on. I’ve got warning rockets. The Iuventa has the boat on its radar screen. I’m not in any danger.”
But he was awestruck by the endless expanse of the water — and how desperate you would feel drifting around in a boat without a motor, with no certainty of making it back onto solid ground. “You have a very clear idea of what it would be like to be in need and no one helps you,” he says.
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Most people are in bad shape by the time a ship finds them, says Beigui. The bottom of a rubber boat will typically be a mix of sea water, gasoline, urine and feces. People come on board with skin wounds and scars; many have signs of torture on their bodies. The Iuventa has capacity for some 300 people and can’t make long journeys; in most cases, it will transfer people to larger ships that can take them to a safe port.
“These people have gone through hell,” says Beigui. “Someone else said this, but it’s a good quote: ‘They die when they get on a smugglers’ boat, and we bring them back to life.’”
He’s been on four missions since 2016: two more with the Iuventa, one with Sea-Watch 3 and one with Mare Liberum, a monitoring vessel in Greece. He became a captain on his third mission on the Iuventa, in June 2017.
It was a particularly intense mission, Beigui recalls. For four days straight, he slept an hour every night. His crew would break for a rest at 2 a.m. and get up again at 4 a.m. Over a period of 10 days, he estimates they saved about 4,000 people from drowning.
“We were in some very intense situations, with maybe a thousand people in the water at once,” says Laura Martin, a British volunteer who has been on four missions with the Iuventa and is one of the 10 crew members facing trial in Italy. “He always maintained this calm and this kind of dry sense of humor throughout the whole thing. It’s exactly what you need to function in those situations.”
Martin worked on the rigid inflatable boats used for quick transfers and rescue operations. “Every time we’d go back to refuel and get more bottles of water, Dari would be there nodding his head and saying, OK what’s next. He was a very reassuring presence.”
Another volunteer named Lea, who worked as a medic on the mission, had a similar impression of Beigui. She asked that her last name be withheld, as she’s become a target online of anti-immigration groups in her native Germany.
It was her first time on a search-and-rescue mission. “He’s very professional, but he’s very empathetic,” she says. “He was a mirror for our own feelings, which made it easier for us. We knew it’s OK to cry, because our captain will probably do the same.”
The missions can take their toll, Beigui admits. “There’s no time to process anything while it’s happening,” he says. “I’d say it doesn’t hit you until about a week or so after you get home, even.”
During a mission, the crew uses the stretches of time between rescues to try to unwind: Some people cook, others read or do yoga, or take a swim off the side of the boat after hours, when the boat is out of the search-and-rescue area and the motor’s been switched off. But getting any real rest is hard, says Beigui, because you never know how long you’ll sleep or what kind of emergency you might wake up to.
“People are starting to think about, who rescues the rescuers?” — Dariush Beigui
Even on a rare quiet day, “you’ve got a baseline level of adrenaline going,” he says. “You’re always on standby. And you’ve got shifts where you’re keeping watch, and you know that lives depend on how well you do that.”
It’s becoming more common among crew members to seek out psychological support, says Beigui. Social workers typically check in with volunteers before they set out on a mission and reach out again when they return.
Most NGO crews to spend some time together to recover, says Martin, though it’s not compulsory. At first, it was three days — now most crews will spend a week together after a mission.
“It’s incredibly important,” says Beigui. “People are starting to think about, who rescues the rescuers?”
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Beigui wasn’t surprised when he heard, in June last year, that the Italian authorities were investigating him and nine other crew members. Authorities had seized the Iuventa in Trapani, a port in Western Sicily, in August 2017, accusing the volunteers of “assistance with illegal migration” and colluding with Libyan smugglers.
Italian investigators began looking into the crew of the Iuventa in 2016 after a private security guard employed by another NGO boat reported suspicious behavior on board the vessel during a rescue in September of that year.
Security contractors on board the Vos Hestia, which is operated by the NGO Save the Children, reported that as their vessel joined the Iuventa during a rescue close to the Libyan coast, they saw a boat driving away toward the coast. The contractors said the two men on board were traffickers who had coordinated a drop-off of migrants with the Iuventa.
Following that report, Italian authorities bugged the bridge of the Iuventa in May 2017. The next month, an undercover agent posing as a security employee on the Vos Hestia reported more suspicious activity. After a rescue involving three migrant boats, the agent said the Iuventa towed the empty boats toward the Libyan coast and left them there for smugglers to pick up.
Later that day, on June 18, one of Iuventa’s small rescue boats met with traffickers to arrange the arrival of another migrant boat, according to the agent’s account. After the Iuventa rescued the migrants on that boat, the smugglers reportedly recovered it in what appeared to be a coordinated operation. Italian authorities have pictures of the men waving as they speed off.
“The more ships are out there, the more migrants will leave” — Italian government official
The crew of the Iuventa dispute the Italian authorities’ version of the events. It would go “against every one of my principles” to work with Libyan smugglers, says Beigui, who was captain of the ship during the June 2017 mission.
Towing boats back to Libya would be a waste of time and take crew members out of action for several hours, he says.
“No NGO has the capacity to recover empty refugee boats, so the crews often set them on fire to sink them,” the “Iuventa10” group said in June in a Twitter threadexplaining the day’s events. “State actors and NGOs have agreed on this as best practice in order to avoid floating ghost targets and prevent smugglers from using the boats again for their dirty business.”
The boats the agent saw being towed away from the Iuventa — and, according to the crew, away from the Libyan coast — were being moved to make way for another rescue, according to Iuventa10. There was another boat on the horizon, carrying some 120 people, including women and children.
The “smugglers” the agent observed later in the day recovering an empty boat weren’t traffickers but so-called “engine fishers” — Libyan fishermen who collect engines or empty boats to sell them on the Libyan market, according to Iuventa10.
“We don’t mess with them for two reasons,” the crew tweeted. “1. They might be armed. 2. The safety of our crew is [the] highest priority.”
An independent analysis by Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, has called the veracity of the prosecution’s claims into question, saying key evidence was withheld and distorted to construct a narrative that incriminates NGOs.
“Our analysis suggests that the Iuventa crew did not return empty boats to smugglers, as they were accused of having done,” the report says. “Nor do they appear to communicate with anyone potentially connected with smuggling networks, as the Italian authorities suggested they had.”
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The Italian government’s increasingly hard line on volunteers like Beigui is based on the notion that rescue vessels constitute a so-called “pull factor” that encourages migrants to risk the dangerous sea crossing, because they know they will be saved.
“The more ships are out there, the more migrants will leave,” said an Italian government official. So Italy has set out to make the crossing “more difficult,” the official said. “There are no more Italian navy ships, less and less NGO ships going around the Mediterranean.”
Operation Sophia — an EU-funded, Italian-led mission that saved some 49,000 people at risk of drowning between June 2015 and February of this year — was extended for six months in March, but no longer deploys ships, relying instead on air surveillance and cooperation with the Libyan coast guard.
Italy’s position is also matter of security, according to Marco Zanni, an MEP for Salvini’s far-right League party. Italy’s aggressive approach is a response to evidence some NGOs “were in touch” with people smugglers in Libya, he said.
“We’re not complaining that NGOs are saving lives,” he said. “We’re complaining that they’re operating close to the coast of Libya and so helping, deliberately or not, the work of organized crime.”
Italy has to act the way it does because it does not receive help from the EU or other national governments, he added. “The Italian government approach is clear,” he said. “We don’t want to be the refugee camp of Europe. We can’t go on with this situation. We already have high unemployment, we can’t spend money, we can’t welcome more refugees, especially people who have no right to stay in the EU.”
Salvini in particular has made a point of facing down rescue ships. In countless social media posts, the interior minister has painted NGOs and their ships as symbols of a hypocritical EU: The vessels, typically sailing under a Dutch or German flag, expect to discharge people in Italy, which — in the absence of a European scheme to relocate migrants — is left alone to deal with them.
On Saturday, after a tense stand-off with two rescue ships seeking to deliver migrants to the Italian island of Lampedusa, Salvini tweeted: “These jackals put the lives of immigrants at risk. Will they also go unpunished?”
Italy is not alone in identifying NGOs as part of the problem. Worries about a “pull factor” are common across the EU, and NGOs have come under fire as far away from the Mediterranean as Belgium and the Netherlands — where governments are wrestling with the rise of the far right and taking a more hardline stance on migration.
The Netherlands, for example, has tightened the rules of its yacht registration system, saying the license — used by many NGOs because of the low cost and minimal paperwork involved — does not give ships the right to fly the Dutch flag or claim Dutch nationality.
There are hardly any ships out in the Mediterranean anymore, and if the few ships that are there are held up, it becomes a humanitarian catastrophe” — Dariush Beigui
NGOs “only raise false hopes and may unintentionally lure even more people into danger,” former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who pushed for the EU to take a harder line on immigration while in office, told German newspaper Die Welt on Sunday. “As long as rescues in the Mediterranean are seen as the ticket to Europe, more and more people will set out on the journey.”
The idea that NGOs are encouraging people to risk their lives at sea is ridiculous, says Beigui. “People will always find ways to flee. Sure, you can say we’re part of the same ecosystem as smugglers. But that ecosystem exists whether we’re there or not. The boats will keep on coming.”
Even as the Italian government focuses on NGOs, boats carrying migrants continue to land on Italian shores, without any outside intervention and little public outcry. Last week, 83 Pakistani migrants arrived on the island of Sa Pietro in Taranto, according to local reports. Last month, 73 docked nearby at Torre Colimena, after a nine-day journey from Turkey.
There’s no data to back up the idea of the “pull factor,” said Matteo Villa, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. Migration numbers show no relation between the numbers of NGOs operating along the coast and the number of people who set out to reach Italy, he said. “If militias decide to put people on a boat they’ll do it. If they want to keep them, they will.”
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The standoff in Italy between Salvini and Rackete, the German captain of the Sea-Watch 3, has called attention to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean — and prompted calls for a new approach.
On Monday, Germany’s development minister, Gerd Müller, called for the next European Commission to launch new rescue missions in the Mediterranean and on Libyan soil, even if there is no unanimous agreement from EU countries. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, whose Christian Social Union party has taken a hard-line approach on migration, called on Salvini to reopen Italy’s ports to NGO vessels.
The spike in media attention has also put pressure on governments to come up with short-term political solutions. Last weekend, the German NGO ship Alan Kurdi — initially rebuffed by Italian and Maltese authorities — was allowed to dock in Malta following a last-minute agreement hammered out with Germany and the European Commission to distribute the migrants on board among several EU countries.
Some activists are pointing the finger at Europe for the proliferation of cases against people helping migrants.
National governments are exploiting a loophole in the EU’s so-called Facilitation Directive, they say. Drafted in 2001 to oblige governments to have sanctions in place for those who facilitate unauthorized entry, the directive says governments can choose not to apply sanctions when it comes to a humanitarian situation.
But the document leaves it up to national authorities to determine what falls under the scope of “humanitarian.” That means they can choose to define certain NGO activities as smuggling.
Resoma, an EU-funded platform for research on migration and asylum, has called for the directive to be reopened or for guidelines to be issued on how governments should interpret it. A report by the European Parliament’s think tank also criticized the text, calling it “not fit for purpose” and recommending that it be reviewed.
That’s unlikely to happen, said an EU official. Countries are too far apart on migration, and there is already too much stalled legislation in the works. “You could certainly argue a certain directive could be improved, to nuance certain things,” said the official. “But there’s also the risk that you’ll be opening Pandora’s box and lowering the standards.”
Although no NGO worker has yet been found guilty on smuggling charges, and a number of cases have been thrown out as a result of a lack of evidence, the number of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean has dwindled as a result of lengthy prosecutions and legal uncertainty.
When Beigui first set out to sea in 2016, there were more than a dozen civilian rescue boats operating on the Mediterranean. In 2018, most NGOs stopped operations, according to a new report by the European Fundamental Rights Agency published in June.
“If I get notice tomorrow that I’m free, I’ll be out on the Mediterranean the day after” — Dariush Beigui
The threat of legal trouble is a strong deterrent, said Seán Binder. The 25-year-old activist working with Resoma volunteered with the Greek NGO Emergency Response Centre International in Lesbos in October 2017, coordinating the civil response along the southern shore of the island.
In August 2018, Binder and Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini were arrested on accusations of facilitating people smuggling networks. They spent more than three months in jail, before being released on bail.
The process was costly, both emotionally and financially. “I can’t find a job, because I’m told we can’t consider you for a job if you’re being prosecuted,” he said. “Opportunity lost is an important cost. I’m 25 — this is a time when I should be doing something and moving forward, and I feel like I am being hampered.”
The organization he worked for collapsed last year. No other official NGO has replaced it, he says. “That has been the function of this trend, whether it was intentional or not,” he adds.
Among the six NGO ships still operational in the Mediterranean in June, two are not active search-and-rescue vessels and only monitor rescue activity. Another, the Sea-Watch 3, was impounded last month after Rackete steered it into the Lampedusa harbor without permission. The NGO has said that money raised to support the German captain will be used for future rescues.
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Beigui is resigned about his legal situation.
He’s sitting out on the deck of his ship in the port of Hamburg with an apple juice, while his colleagues man the controls. “You can’t prepare yourself for a case like this,” he says. The trial is slated to start in the fall and could take years. “[The Italian authorities will] just conjure another rabbit out of a hat, and because we have no idea what color that rabbit will be, we just can’t prepare at all.”
In the meantime, he works his 7 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. shift at the port and spent a recent few days off to move apartments. He’d rather be on a mission. “Every day there are people in distress,” he says. “There are hardly any ships out in the Mediterranean anymore, and if the few ships that are there are held up, it becomes a humanitarian catastrophe.”
So far this year, 667 people have died in the Mediterranean, according to a United Nations estimate. The real number is likely to be much higher, according to Alarm Phone, an NGO that acts as a hotline for boats in distress and helps coordinate rescues. In April, the organization received a call about a boat carrying some 50 people, it said. It alerted a nearby NGO vessel, the Sea-Eye’s Alan Kurdi, but the migrants were never found.
In the port of Hamburg, captains wave as Beigui’s ship passes by. One flashes him the middle finger (he’s upset about an unanswered call over the weekend, Beigui says.) Two men lean over a railing nearby and shout, “Dariush, you’re a hero.” The port’s a “small village,” he says. Most people have heard of his work in the Mediterranean, and some like to tease him about the media attention.
Since last fall, he’s been speaking at events across Germany with the other Iuventa crew members under investigation, trying to raise money and awareness for their case. He’s just come back from an event in Prague, and will be speaking at rallies in Leipzig and Dresden later this summer. So far, they’ve raised just over €25,000 — half their target.
The experience has brought the crew closer together, says Martin. “When we found out, Dari and a couple others of us sat down one evening and he said, OK, these are the cards that have been handed to us, now we have to do something — use this attention and make something positive out of it.”
Beigui still hopes the case will be thrown out. But he’s not overly worried. “I haven’t regretted any of it for one moment,” he says.
“I’ve looked too many people in the eyes where they were clearly saying ‘If you weren’t here, I’d be dead,’” he adds. “I’ll be happy about that even if I’m in jail. And if I get notice tomorrow that I’m free, I’ll be out on the Mediterranean the day after.”