Foto: Nora Nussbaumer

On behalf of humanity

Roger de Weck, publicist and board member at SOS Méditerranée, talks about the challenges of sea rescues, the resilience of the teams and the lifesaving mission of the Ocean Viking rescue vessel. A peek behind the scenes at a humanitarian organisation. Accès aux coulisses d’une organisation humanitaire.

You’re often prai­sed for the work you do at your orga­ni­sa­tion. What does that public reco­gni­tion mean to you personally? 

In my eyes, that reco­gni­tion is for ever­yone who does their bit for the rescue of life at sea. Just take our patrons. Without them, SOS Médi­ter­ra­née wouldn’t have been able to rescue 38,915 survi­vors over eight years, inclu­ding many babies, child­ren, unac­com­pa­nied minors and pregnant women. SOS Médi­ter­ra­née is proud to be a purely huma­ni­ta­rian orga­ni­sa­tion that doesn’t get invol­ved with poli­tics whatsoe­ver. We engage cons­truc­tively with nati­ons to support them in respec­ting mari­time law. And we take a profes­sio­nal approach with strict proces­ses, espe­ci­ally on board our rescue ship, the Ocean Viking. Rescue workers have to be well trai­ned and highly disciplined.

Your orga­ni­sa­tion saves lives. You work hard to remind the public and insti­tu­ti­ons, govern­ments and poli­ti­ci­ans about the huma­ni­ta­rian crisis in the Medi­ter­ra­nean. Do you think the public some­ti­mes forgets about this crisis?

Not always, but some­ti­mes. The world is always facing plenty of crises – that’s certainly the case right now.

Do you think people push the crisis out of their mind because they’re not in the thick of it themselves?

People can’t be expec­ted to carry all the suffe­ring in the world on their should­ers. You can’t blame them for suppres­sing it. Equally, nobody should disap­prove of us remin­ding people of the tragedy. Over the past decade, appro­xi­m­ately 30,000 people have drow­ned in the Medi­ter­ra­nean – the dead­liest sea crossing. 

How do you communicate?

We’re the first – and often the only – witnesses at the scene of a tragedy. That means we have a respon­si­bi­lity. On land, we report objec­tively and trans­par­ently on what’s happe­ning out at sea as close to real time as we can get. The Ocean Viking’s posi­tion is always online for anyone to see. We have strong emoti­ons but we keep them out of these communications. 

What’s SOS Méditerranée’s under­stan­ding of resi­li­ence in rela­tion to your mission and acti­vi­ties in the Mediterranean?

Resi­li­ence is a person’s ability to live a good life in the face of trau­ma­tic circum­s­tances. The crew steps on board the Ocean Viking to work for weeks on end in a rest­ric­ted space, give up their privacy and carry on whate­ver the weather. They are faced with death, violence and distress out at sea. But all of that is nothing compared to the expe­ri­en­ces of the survi­vors we rescue and the stories they tell us about their lives. Someone who has fled from a conflict zone and has no other option but to risk their life at sea is having to deal with one trauma after the other. What they have left is their dignity. And a will to survive. It’s not uncom­mon for people we rescue to burst into song once they’re safe and sound on our big red ship.

‘We are the first, and often the only, witnesses to a tragedy on the ground. That is an obligation.’

Roger de Weck, publi­cist and board member of SOS Méditerranée

What chal­lenges and risks are invol­ved when rescuing migrants at sea?

First of all, we don’t rescue migrants. We rescue people. Migrant is a status, which we have no way of confir­ming at sea. These are people in need. It’s as simple as that. But the Ocean Viking is not always free to sail. Our ship has been seized before and SOS Médi­ter­ra­née threa­tened with legal action. But we avoid any kind of confron­ta­tion at all costs.

The Libyan Coast Guard has threa­tened our teams with weapons and fired gunshots in inter­na­tio­nal waters three times now. Howe­ver, the crew is trai­ned to handle unex­pec­ted situa­tions. Rescues at sea come down to a chain of decis­i­ons made in the moment. These decis­i­ons can be a matter of life and death – for the people we’re rescuing and for our teams.

On dry land, our biggest chall­enge is finding the funds to char­ter our ship and take it out to sea as often as possi­ble. Fuel prices have skyro­cke­ted. The budget for our opera­ti­ons is sitting at around 9 million Swiss francs right now. That’s a huge amount, but it gives us the solid foun­da­tion we need to stay at sea and save lives.

How does SOS Médi­ter­ra­née improve the resi­li­ence of its opera­ti­ons and teams in light of poli­ti­cal and legal obstacles?

SOS Médi­ter­ra­née tries to stay in dialo­gue with the autho­ri­ties. Infor­med dialo­gue is the key here. That’s how we’ve mana­ged to stay at sea for so long when others have run aground. It takes some serious persis­tence because the autho­ri­ties keep chan­ging the legal frame­work. New regu­la­ti­ons are passed. Each time, we adapt the way we work, our inter­nal proces­ses and our ship to meet the addi­tio­nal requi­re­ments. This comes at a price – in terms of finan­cial costs but also stress.

Does SOS Médi­ter­ra­née work with other NPOs? Or do you colla­bo­rate with state actors and/or inter­na­tio­nal organisations?

We’re fort­u­nate enough to colla­bo­rate with the Inter­na­tio­nal Fede­ra­tion of Red Cross and Red Cres­cent Socie­ties (IFRC) in Geneva. They provide support staff, secu­rity person­nel and medi­cal profes­sio­nals. As orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, we share the same huma­ni­ta­rian ethos. When­ever the Ocean Viking is at sea, rescue missi­ons are coor­di­na­ted with other sea rescue teams, search planes and, in some cases, cargo ships. And it goes without saying that the autho­ri­ties are invol­ved too. The sea is such a vast space that coor­di­na­tion is essen­tial. Without it, the number of fata­li­ties would be even bigger. 

Why do you volun­teer with SOS Médi­ter­ra­née? What made you get invol­ved originally?

In his coll­ec­tion of essays titled What is Euro­pean?, Adolf Muschg wrote that our conti­nent is named after a foreig­ner. The young Phoe­ni­cian prin­cess Europa was play­ing on the beach when the king of the gods Zeus emer­ged from the water and wickedly abduc­ted her. He took her to the part of the world that is now named after her. Europe is named after a ‘foreig­ner’ and a victim of violence – just like the count­less people on the shores of the Medi­ter­ra­nean right now. That sums up the initial moti­va­tion for my invol­vement. When SOS Médi­ter­ra­née got in touch, I said yes without any hesitation.

‘The essence of our resi­li­ence is that we save lives. There is nothing more meaningful.’

Roger de Weck, publi­cist and board member of SOS Méditerranée

How does the orga­ni­sa­tion support the mental health of its employees and volun­teers conside­ring the terror and trauma they find them­sel­ves faced with?

Our colle­agues who go out to sea are given resi­li­ence trai­ning and taught how to handle extreme emer­gency situa­tions. Every single person also has to complete psycho­lo­gi­cal first aid trai­ning. That’s so important for the people we rescue and our colle­agues, too.

The team on board the ship for every rescue mission is like a family. That’s how the contrac­ted employees can keep going with this chal­len­ging work for five, six or even seven years. The brie­fing and debrie­fing peri­ods are well struc­tu­red, but this kind of commit­ment has the poten­tial to leave behind all kinds of scars. There’s ongo­ing dialo­gue with psycho­lo­gists on board, giving ever­yone the oppor­tu­nity to offload and talk through their worries. We don’t get ever­y­thing spot on every time – there’s room for improvement.

What is the organisation’s stra­tegy for ensu­ring that it can conti­nue with its huma­ni­ta­rian work in the Mediterranean?

We rely on part­ners and patrons. Without that support, we’d only be able to keep the Ocean Viking in action for six months. We appeal to the gene­ral public and insti­tu­tio­nal part­ners alike. And we also look for new cont­acts beyond the borders of our four usual count­ries – Switz­er­land, France, Germany and Italy.

How do you apply the expe­ri­ence gained in past missi­ons to future missions?

After every rescue mission, the team has a debrief to discuss the rescue opera­tion, chal­len­ging situa­tions, medi­cal evacua­tions (some­ti­mes invol­ving heli­c­op­ters), the survi­vors’ arri­val on dry land and so on, so that ever­yone is up to speed. Lear­nings are added to our know­ledge bank and inte­gra­ted into our trai­ning plans. Our know­ledge bank is also highly valuable beyond our small orga­ni­sa­tion. We’re in the process of crea­ting trai­ning cour­ses, a book and confe­ren­ces so that ever­yone invol­ved in mass rescue opera­ti­ons can bene­fit from this expe­ri­ence and expertise.

What impact does SOS Médi­ter­ra­née have on the resi­li­ence of society as a whole?

Let’s stay modest and assume that the answer is most likely zero.

How does SOS Médi­ter­ra­née main­tain the resi­li­ence requi­red to respond flexi­bly to new and surpri­sing deve­lo­p­ments and threats?

The fact that we save lives is at the heart of our resi­li­ence. Nothing can mean more than that. Each and every rescue gives us a bit more hope. 

How do you work with the other natio­nal orga­ni­sa­ti­ons? Do you support each other or does each orga­ni­sa­tion work independently?

One of our strengths comes from the fact that we keep ques­tio­ning our proces­ses and our perspec­ti­ves within the SOS Médi­ter­ra­née network. Our colla­bo­ra­tion between four count­ries raises cultu­ral chal­lenges that we can over­come produc­tively as we work towards our shared vision.

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