The discomfort of watching refugees celebrate

“You don't ask people with knives in their stomachs what would make them happy; happiness is no longer the point. It's all about survival; it's all about whether you pull the knife out and bleed to death or keep it in...” Nick HornbyHow to Be Good

 The wind howl as rain batters the mid-sized ship in the dead of the night. The cracking sound of the thunder and the waves is everywhere. The crew, a group of Germans busy themselves tying this and tying that.  The water and the clouds are so dark that one can barely tell them apart. Lightning strikes, surprising the sky for a second before quickly vanishing. It is the Mediterranean at its most ferocious. In the horizon, a flickering light appears. The binoculars are set in that direction.

‘It’s a boat!’ a lady looking into a pair of binoculars cries out. The men jump to their feet and start dressing up. Helmets are quickly pulled and fastened.

‘Yes it’s a boat!’ another voice calls out as if to confirm what they already know. ‘I think they are at least 300!’ the voice adds throwing the binoculars aside and grabbing a helmet.

His name is Markus and this is his first saving operation at night. His eyes light up. 

“Mediterranean shouldn’t be a graveyard!” he says, a bit out of breath and fastening his helmet. His heartbeat is racing. Saving people from drowning is a lot of things.

Dangerous. Exciting.

 It is especially dangerous when said people do not know how to swim which is unfortunately always the case. Almost all who set out on the 2000km stretch between Libya and Italy  across the  Mediterranean are almost always non-swimmers. They are exceptional in every sense of the word. They are the grit crowd. (Angela Duckworth anyone?) The ones who don’t give up. The ones who  look for ways. Impossible ways.  The suicidal ones.

Klaus Vögel and his crew of volunteers work to save refugees in the Mediteranean
Klaus Vögel and his crew of volunteers work to save refugees in the Mediteranean

‘Vi are from Germany, vi are here to help you!’ A middle aged man, the captain of the ship speaks into a loudspeaker. He owns the ship and the whole crew are volunteers.

Saving the refugees is helping the traffickers.

The more you save them, the more will come.

Save them and then what?

He has heard all kinds of accusations. He’s watched refugee residences burnt down across Germany. He’s watched right populist parties become mainstream. But he is still out here.


The small boat is now a few meters from the ship. The light from the ship beams onto the small boat. It is an inflatable boat, the kind that looks like a toy. It is full to the brim and the people in it are all dressed in red-orange inflated life vests.  They are all standing. I guess anything else would not be possible. Any good businessman would admire the traffickers’ ability to optimize. Every single space is occupied and because of the inflated vests, one cannot turn or move.  As I watch them, it suddenly occurs to me that the vests are exactly like the one I used to have. In my misguided attempt to cut corners and swim without the inconvenience of a swimming lesson, I once got myself a swimming vest.  Even in a pool, I almost drowned. Swimming/life vests are strictly to aid swimming and not to save one who has never swam from drowning. 

A race through a dark slippery tunnel

‘Please stay calm’ the middle aged man speaks into the loudspeaker. His voice is calm. The people in the boat look up. Their faces are a mixture of relief and nervousness. In the moments that follow, life boats are lowered into the water. Markus and his colleagues get busy pulling people from the boat and into the ship. They wrap them in blankets and check their body temperatures. Among the volunteers are doctors, students and all kinds of professionals. It’s like a mini army.


 As I watch this, I feel myself tear up. Taking an inflated boat across the Mediterranean is like a race through a long dark slippery tunnel. It is as risky as standing in front of 40,000 kg truck driving at 100 km per hour and hoping that it will somehow stop in time and not grind you into pulp. 

Please stop!

After what seems like an eternity, the older man appears. He looks in the direction of the guests. They are now warm and dry. Some have blankets around their shoulders. They are all holding cups, perhaps the first time they are eating or drinking anything in quite some time.

They are from Gambia, Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria. An all African entourage also known as “Wirtschafts Flüchtlinge”. On the love hierarchy for refugees, they rank pretty low.

As if on cue, the guests start singing and dancing. They high-five each other.

“We are in Europe! We are finally in Europe” They chant. Their voices are triumphant and excited. They hug each other.

I feel myself cringe.

I can literally hear the collective dismay and groans across Europe. 

Please stop! I hear myself whisper.

Too scared for them. Too scared for the volunteers.


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