Wednesday

20th Nov 2019

Interview

Ship captain to launch migrant sea rescue mission

  • The 60-metre MARKAB is a Dutch pilot vessel (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)

Klaus Vogel spent most of his life at sea, steering large ships through waters in far-off places and in the Mediterranean.

Last November, he quit his ten-year job as captain of a big container ship. The 59-year-old from Hamburg, who holds a PhD in history, has a new vision.

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  • Klaus Vogel is a former container ship captain (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)

"If somebody is in distress at sea we have an obligation to help and I personally feel obliged to do that", he told this website on Tuesday (20 October).

Vogel came to Brussels to announce the European launch of SOS Mediterranee, a civil society-based initiative to get a 60-metre rescue boat out at sea on a permanent basis.

Sitting in the 12th floor office of Arne Lietz, a German socialist MEP, at the European parliament, Vogel says the plan is to rescue people in distress and then disembark them in Italy.

Vogel, who wears a 'je suis migrant' pin on his jacket, says he left his job because the response from civil society and the maritime community to support rescue efforts was "insufficient".

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees says five times more people have already arrived this month by sea compared to the total for October last year. Around 3,100 have died in the attempt.

Vogel's plan is to get the Markab, a Dutch pilot vessel, in the water either in late December or January next year.

The all-weather boat will operate three to four-week missions before returning to refuel and change crew. It has two small speedboats and can carry up to 400 people and a crew of around a dozen, including a medical team of volunteers.

A rescue can take up to 12 hours and disembarkation in Italy up to 36 hours. The boat will operate in international waters near Libya.

Moored at the Pula shipyard in Croatia, the Markab costs €1.2 million. Money to purchase it, along with operational costs, is being sourced by crowdfunding and donations from partners like Medecins du Monde.

"All together we are [at] around €520,000 now. Once we have the operation costs for three months, we will start. We still need €100,000 to €120,000 to start", he said.

With enough financial backing, Vogel hopes to fill in a rescue gap over the coming winter months.

Private initiatives like Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), he says, won't be patrolling the Mediterranean after October. And Medecins Sans Frontieres plans to keep its Dignity and Bourbon Argos rescue boats operational until the end of December.

The EU's sea rescue operation Triton, commanded by Rome, has rescued thousands of people over the past year. But warships don't give their position.

Fewer people attempt to cross from Libya to Italy during the winter, but Vogel says those who do are at a much higher risk given the low water temperatures.

"We cannot just do nothing", he said.

SOS Mediterranee was founded in Berlin in May. The mission differs from MOAS, launched last year by a millionaire philanthropist couple, because it is civil-society based.

"We want to build up civil society support and connection and action and response on the basis of [the] European civil society movement. That is the difference", he says.

An SOS Mediterranee German chapter was also founded over the summer. In September, they launched an SOS Mediterranee French chapter in Marseille. Another one is in the works for Denmark.

Leitz and Vogel met through a mutual friend in May. The German MEP grew up in East Berlin and both share the same cause.

"I grew up behind the [iron] curtain so I know what it means when people flee. My father was a leader in the opposition against the government", said Leitz.

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