Every now and again somebody asks us “do you ever feel scared when you’re out at sea?”. It’s not necessarily a straightforward question to answer – of course we’ve had moments of heightened discomfort and feeling anxious, but have we ever felt actual fear? No. Pernille’s mum may refer to our boat as a walnut shell, but at the end of the day it’s a 35 ft sturdy and fully equipped Hallberg Rassy, including all the safety gear. Even though things can get a bit gnarly at times, we don’t know what it’s like to fear for our lives at sea.
If you’re sailing around the European continent, and especially in the Med, you’ve probably thought about what to do if/when you stumble upon refugees. Maybe you even have a few contingency plans depending on the specific situation. But when push come to shove will you be up to the task?
When we sailed along the Spanish south coast the refugee crisis became very evident to us as we saw heaps of abandoned refugee boats on the beaches – the remains of those who made it, while those who didn’t, are lost to the sea with no trail left behind. We listened in on numerous rescue missions over the radio (e.g. rescue services communicating with a rescue plane identifying refugee boats and assessing who to save first based on questions like “is it a rubber boat or fiberglass?” and “do they have life vests?”) and witnessed a refugee boat arriving full of relieved and hopeful young people, who were quickly picked up by the immigration authorities. It is very clear that Spain is under a lot of pressure as a country of arrival – Spain is among the European countries that have seen the largest number of migrant and refugee arrival and it’s estimated that more than 33.000 border crossings to Spain have taken place in 2021 (including the Canary Islands, which is one of the most dangerous routes).
We expected to see evidence of the struggles of refugees as we sailed into the Med. But we were still confounded by how conspicuous the refugee crisis is there, and how overwhelmed the rescue services appeared to be – all of which became even more clear to us when we found a refugee boat out at sea…
Finding a refugee boat at sea
The day had started off calm – super calm – and in the afternoon, as the wind came in, the waves started to build up, and we were sailing with a steady speed of around 6 knots surfing the little waves alongside stripped dolphins. But this magical day of sailing in the Med took a sharp tur when Leo spotted a small boat drifting in the distance.
The boat appeared to be an unmanned refugee boat, but we couldn’t be certain, and we decided to sail closer to the boat. As we approached the boat fear entered our minds in two ways.
Firstly, we were struck by a personal fear – a fear of uselessness and the risk of failing another human being. As we approached a piece of plastic waved in the wind, looking briefly like a hand waving for help and uncomfortable questions filled our heads. If there were still people in the boat would we be able to help them? Could we get them aboard safely in these conditions? If in need of medical care did we have that onboard? And worst of all, what if they were no longer alive or dying? It dawned on us how unprepared we are to help anyone at sea.
It turned out to be a refugee boat that had been abandoned during a rescue mission (which was confirmed by the local coastguard). Apparently they don’t have the capacity to tow the boat, when they rescue migrants so it’s left behind. We wondered why they didn’t sink it though – maybe someone would go pick it up later?
As we watched the tiny boat being battered about in the waves, a second sense of fear filled our minds – one of overwhelming empathy. We thought about who’d been in that boat and the many others who travel across the European seas in similar or even more fragile boats. We don’t know what it’s like to fear for your life at sea, and we truly hope we never will, but we feel immense compassion for those who risk everything and travel miles across the open sea, through treacherous waves and dark nights, in a small dinghy with an unreliable engine and unable to call for help. We can’t think of anything more terrifying. But why would anyone take such risks unless one’s current situation is even more dangerous and hopeless?
The refugee crisis will only accelerate, in tandem with climate change
“A growing number of people are uprooted by natural disasters or lose their livelihoods to desertification, with climate change now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement. Most of the people affected will remain in their own countries. They will be internally displaced. But if they cross a border, they will not be considered refugees. Does it mean they chose to abandon their homes? No. These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily.“António Guterres 2011
We prefer to use the term “refugees” as we believe that anyone risking their own life and the lives of their their loved ones are not just “migrating”, they are fleeing. People who have been forced to leave their home as a result of climate change are often referred to as “economic immigrants” – not refugees – supposedly that term makes it administratively easier to send them back.
But we cannot close our eyes to the fact that their will be more “migrants”, or rather climate refugees, in the future. Rather than spending eyewatering amounts on building walls, exercising horrid turn-around-policies and setting up inhumane campsites to facilitate processes for sending people back, we in the West (the primary drivers of climate change) should be more rational and humane with our public spending, and instead financially assist developing countries in mitigating climate change (as weøve promised to do btw) to minimise the need of people to leave their homes.
And most importantly, we ought to treat those who do arrive on our continent and in our respective countries with kindness and compassion.
‘Tis the season …
We all have different resources and access to help the refugees, and we’re not hear to tell you what to do (we’re still trying to uncover different ways to help ourselves), but one super easy and impactful way is to Choose Love.
Choose Love is a UK-based non-governmental organization which provides humanitarian aid to, and advocacy for, refugees around the world. In 2016, it became the largest grassroots distributor of aid in Europe. The Choose Love shop is the world’s first to sell real products for refugees and displaced communities, you can visit the shop here.
We’re terrible at giving each other presents. Last year we agreed to just give each other safety equipment for the boat (which we would have bought anyway obvs). So this year we decided to give that present to someone who really needs it, and we’ve bought a “bundle of warmth” for a refugee family who’ve travelled endless miles across ocean and/or land to find safety and hope for the future.
If you’re still struggling to buy that last Christmas presents for the one “who has everything” and is “impossible to shop for”, we strongly recommend to Choose Love and give a Christmas present that truly matters.