Iasonas Apostolopoulos. Video: Tassos Morfis, Gerasimos Domenikos / FOS PHOTOS

While Aquarius Is In Port, Thousands Are In Distress

We talked to a Greek rescuer of the migrant rescue ship Aquarius that saved thousands of lives in Central Mediterranean.

by Tassos Morfis and Eliza Gkritsi

Iasonas Apostolopoulos is an Athens-born humanitarian worker and civil engineer. He was working as a rescuer on board Aquarius 2, one of the largest rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean. The boat, 77 meters long, staffed and funded by two NGOs SOS Mediterranée, a French-German organization founded three years ago and Doctors Without Borders who are taking care of the refugees when onboard has been was operating in international waters in response to the ongoing refugee crisis. Their aim was to spot migrant boats in distress, rescue the people and safely transport them to Italy. Every week, thousands of migrants are departing from Libya, and are trying to cross the sea on extremely low-quality rubber dinghies.

The operational area of the boat. (Source)

Aquarius does not have permission to sail anymore. The Panama Maritime Authority has revoked the registration of search and rescue ship Aquarius 2 after very serious political pressure from Italy. In particular, Italy made a brutal extortion that if Panama does not remove the flag from the rescue vessel Aquarius then Italy will close all ports for all merchant ships under Panama flag. This means that no refugees will not be saved off the Libyan coast in the near future unless the vessel can find a new flag to sail under.

In a joint statement, five international Human Rights organizations call on European leaders to ensure the Aquarius can continue to save lives at sea. “Five years to the day after the Lampedusa tragedy in which at least 368 people died, rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea are more vital than ever”, they remind us.

Apostolopoulos’ involvement in the refugee crisis started on the Greek island of Lesvos. In October 2015 he was one of the founding members of the started a self-organised solidarity initiative for the arriving refugees. They set up a camp on the beach where the majority of the boats were arriving from Turkey. After a while they set up a grass-roots rescue team and he was the rescue skipper. The team was called Platanos Refugee Solidarity. For almost 7 months that he volunteered as a rescue skipper they were conducting a lot of rescue operations along the north coast of Lesvos.

Until June 2016 when the arrivals dropped to zero after the agreement between the European Union and Turkey they team decided to leave Lesvos. Later Apostolopoulos applied to one of the organization in the Central Mediterranean and since then he has been working in the area.

Below, you can find a transcript of our video interview with Iasonas Apostolopoulos:

Right now the situation at sea is tragic. There is no boat to rescue refugees. Nobody coordinates rescues. All vessels that have been conducting search and rescue operations so far have left. Frontex and Italian authorities too. Nobody is interested in refugees anymore.
It is a situation where people are drowning without anyone paying attention. We had an incident three weeks ago when an airplane spotted a boat and called the Italian authorities requesting for help saying “there is a boat with 150 people in the middle of the sea”. Italy said “call Malta” Malta said “call Libya” but Libya does not pick it up, the aircraft had to emit SOS and no one answered. Two merchant ships passed by and they did not even answer.
Our vessel, Aquarius, in a rescue that I also participated in May 2017, was attacked by the Libyan coast guard. They assaulted us with weapons to get the refugees back. They started to hit people we were trying to save, they were shooting in the air trying to get the refugees from us back to Libya.
When the refugees realized they were taken back, all jumped into the sea to escape. We had 120 people at sea swimming desperately amongst boats to escape from the Libyans and come to us. The Libyans followed them and took their life jackets so they drown.
Iasonas Apostolopoulos, Civil Engineer — Humanitarian Worker Photo: Gerasimos Domenikos / FOS PHOTOS
People were hanging from ropes and the Libyans were telling us to let them drown. “If someone jumps in the water they drown, you will not take them” they said. We were negotiating to save a single person! That day was so chaotic, we were desperately asking for help from Italy, and Italy told us that the Libyans are coordinators of the rescues, “listen to them” this is what they responded. They never sent any boats. Eventually we managed to get 1,004 people on board that day, while normally the capacity is 500 people. We could not let them be taken back.
Italy has recognized Libya as the responsible authority so they have assigned them all the rescue coordination so if you rescue someone they say “give them back to the Libyans.” These are the current protocols in the area. The Libyan authority extends up to 80 nautical miles. They have shared the sea on two sides. This is the most flagrant violation of international law because rescues take place in international waters, not in Libyan.
The distance to Sicily is 260 nautical miles i.e. 520 km of open sea. With the speed that the boats go, it means a three-day journey without any land or lighthouses, without and landmarks only with a hand compass for navigation trying to go north.
The boats they travel on are mainly inflatable, they are huge inflatable ten meters long boats where 120–150 people are literally packed. It is terrible how full they are. There are also some wooden ones, hollow inside. That’s where 400–600 people are so horribly stacked in the interior. We’ve seen men stepping on each other’s head, people suffocating, and the living travel with the dead for hours.
The rescue zone is way further than the Libyan waters, 30 miles from Libya. This is because people can not sail further. There were days when we learned that entire boats took off from Libya and could not even get out of the Libyan waters. They were lost en route. I remember that we were looking for two boats that disappeared. They suddenly sunk and we never found them. This is two hundred and fifty people dead. In one day. This is fundamental. This is so stressful.
If you do not spot them quickly, they will all be lost. You will find an empty boat and five bodies afloat. It is vital that there are ships over there. It is vital to be able to sail, search and rescue constantly. You are the last hope of these people. They have nothing else. They escaped from slavery and their salvation is at sea.
The first thing they ask us as soon as they are onboard is “where does the ship go to?” “If it goes to Libya, I prefer to jump back into the sea”, “I prefer to die”. Everyone we rescue, all without any exception, have torture injuries on their body. We’ve seen scars from knives, shots, acid burns. Whatever you can imagine.
We have seen people with missing fingers, without arms, people that at a gunpoint had to rape each other. We had people who were hanged upside down and let live without food for weeks. We have terrible descriptions of what is happening in the detention centers in Libya. The sole purpose of those centers is to torture people for ransom.
People onboard tell me that while they are being beaten they are forced to call their families for ransom so they can be let go. Some that have managed to pay are being held hostages by other gangs and have paid multiple times. Too many refugees have paid two and three times to be released and they end up being captured by another gang in the middle of nowhere.
During the last rescue, we had 35 Sudanese who were sold four times. From gang to gang. And one even had a bullet in his leg. They told us “we go to the shower they throw bare cables on the floor to electrocute us.” And if they survive, they are released, put on a boat and send to the sea to perpetuate the flow of people, to perpetuate the flow of labor.
What is happening in Libya is a business. They live off this sadistic exploitation of people. In general, what I am telling you has not been told to me by one or two persons, but all the sub-Saharan Africans that we rescued at sea. It’s not just death that shocks you. It’s that death is a political choice there. This is the most shocking thing for me that I can not accept. All these people could have been saved but they are not.

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