The Aita Mari in Lesbos, Greece, April 2019 | Photo: Aita Mari
The Aita Mari in Lesbos, Greece, April 2019 | Photo: Aita Mari

The Aita Mari was supposed to run search and rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean. But the Spanish government denied the ship permission to do so and blocked it from setting sail for months. That's why the crew decided to go on an aid mission in Greece instead.

The Aita Mari ship arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 22 carrying blankets, clothes and medical and sanitary supplies to distribute among the 12,000 inhabitants of the refugee camps on Lesbos and Chios. The vessel, which is run by the Basque NGO Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario (SMH), will stay in Lesbos for at least two months. SMH is distributing medical supplies in the camps and checks the inhabitants for chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. That is the most positive result of a very long struggle, explain the organization's leaders. But even so, what the ship and crew are doing today is not exactly what the organization originally intended.

The Aita Mari's journey so far wasn't easy. Originally, the ship wasn't supposed to just deliver humanitarian aid goods, it was supposed to rescue migrants at sea. But in January, it was denied permission to run search and rescue missions at sea, leaving the ship blocked in its home port of Bilbao. Only after SMH decided to run a humanitarian mission to the Greek islands instead, did it get the green light to set sail from the Spanish government; along with another Spanish NGO ship, the Open Arms. 

The Aita Mari crew  Photo Aita Mari

The ship stopped in Palma, Mallorca, on April 14, accompanied by growing media attention and support from those who think rescue missions like this should be supported. Finally, the vessel received permission to continue to Greece. However, if the NGO were to venture into official search and rescue areas in the Central Mediterranean without permission it would face fines of 300,000 to 900,000 euros.

A call to action

At the end of 2015, the picture of the dead body of the little Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, shocked the world. A small group of volunteers working with the Red Cross and some help organizations in the Basque country, a region in northern Spain, decided to do something to help. The Aita Mari is the first rescue vessel run by the SMH, an organization that was created in 2015 to provide medical aid and humanitarian services to migrants and refugees in Greece.

This image moved us and we decided that we had to do something to help in the Aegean Sea. The situation was overwhelming for the Greek authorities,” says Iñigo Mijangos, president of the SMH group.

SMH started to work on Chios island in November 2015. “Throughout 2016, we saw that the EU's migration policy was based on stricter border controls. So we started to not only [provide] aid and public service but to fight for human rights as well," Mijangos explains.

People in a makeshift camp outside the refugee camp of Moria Lesbos island Greece Photo EPAPANAGIOTIS BALASKAS

Covering the gap

SMH soon expanded its mission – from helping migrants and refugees on land and lobbying for their interests, to helping those in distress at sea. At the beginning of 2017, in a meeting with other NGOs, European Commission representatives told us that there was no humanitarian mission mandate [that required the EU to run extensive rescue missions] and that they were not going to issue one either,” says Mijangos.

So, I came back convinced that we had to do our best to put as many ships as possible in the Central Mediterranean because if not, we were condemning all these people to die in Libya or along the way," says Mijangos.

The SMH team started to look for funding for a ship with which they could run search and rescue missions.

At that time, the organization received support from the Basque government, one of the most important donors, covering half of the budget. They have been supporting them ever since. 

“The first year we received 150,000 euros, the second one – last year – 400,000. The idea was to buy and transform the ship to do some missions after," says Mijangos. “Last year, we bought the ship and we carried out maintenance work from June to middle October to adapt it to its new role. Once we finished, we started with the certification and inspection process. Finally, we hired a professional crew."

'Nobody wants to have a witness there'

Although the ship was ready in December, the organization had to wait for final permission from the Spanish government before actually setting sail.

“The Spanish government tried to slow down every step, first delaying the certification process and the permissions and then afterward by restricting rescue tasks," Mijangos says.

The Aita Mari in Lesbos Greece April 2019  Photo Aita Mari

Like many other boats used by rescue NGOs, the Aita Mari was blocked for months at the harbor without permission to sail to the Central Mediterranean in order to carry out rescues.  Because of this, the Aita Mari has, so far, never been used for the purpose for which it was intended – search and rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean.

SMH and the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms worked together on a campaign, demanding the “release” of rescue ships. More than 200,000 Spanish people signed their petition, putting pressure on the Spanish government.

Finally, the Aita Mari left the Spanish coast a couple of weeks ago and Proactiva Open Arms' ship did so as well several day later. But their services are limited to humanitarian tasks.

Greece: Worse than four years ago

Now in Greece, the SMH group is complaining that the situation in refugee camps is worse than four years ago.

It's a shame that this is happening in Europe”, says Mijangos. “Three or almost four years later, people still live in tents or prefabricated units without air conditioning – in Greece, which is a country with extreme temperatures, with power and water [outages.]" 

Iigo Mijangos head of Salvamento Martimo Humanitario  Photo Judit Alonso

He says that “there are rats, scorpions, spiders, and the shared spaces are infested with scabies” in the refugee camps and that there are “horrible hygienic conditions” in communal toilets. 

These conditions cause health problems in the refugee camp, he explains. “Very typical are diseases of the respiratory system and panic attacks,” he says, adding that women are the most vulnerable.  


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