Police have taken possession of the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship for the time being | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Sea-Watch.org/C.Grodotzki
Police have taken possession of the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship for the time being | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Sea-Watch.org/C.Grodotzki

Private search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean rely on donations to stay afloat — literally. But not all of them seem to benefit the same way from recent publicity about NGO sea rescues. Following a spike earlier this summer, donations are hitting a new low.

The issue of NGO sea rescues was once more propelled into the spotlight throughout Europe earlier this year when Carola Rackete, captain of the private Sea-Watch 3 rescue vessel, decided to dock the boat in the Italian port of Lampedusa on June 29 this year — despite lacking any authorization to do so.

There were 42 rescued migrants on board, who had been stranded at sea for more than two weeks at that point, as Italy continued to block any private rescue missions from entering its ports. Rackete said she had no choice as the people on board were exhausted and at risk of jumping off the NGO vessel in an act of desperation.

Sea-Watch3 captain Carola Rackete leaves the Court after being questioned by prosecutors  Photo ANSA

Many soon celebrated Rackete as a hero who put saving lives before politics, while others such as Italy's then-interior minister Matteo Salvini had less welcoming words to say about the 31-year-old captain, calling her a "threat to national security," a "criminal" and a "rich and spoilt German communist" among other things. She quickly became the new face of Europe's ongoing challenges with migration, at least for those who agree with her actions and views.

Soon after docking on Lampedusa, Rackete was arrested but released not long thereafter; however, she remains under investigation and could still face up to 15 years in prison — if she is convicted of the crimes of which she is accused.

A short-lived success story

Realizing that she might face steep legal costs, Rackete's supporters rallied around her and within 48 hours of her initial arrest on June 29, raised more than €1 million to finance her defense and to support Sea-Watch in general. Carola Rackete's story became one of the greatest publicity generators for private sea rescue initiatives.The crowdfunding initiative was spearheaded by German comedian Jan Böhmermann, who put his weight behind the campaign and used his celebrity status to attract bigger donations to come to Rackete's aid.

But that enthusiasm appears to have quietened down in the three months since. When two months later Claus-Peter Reisch, captain of Mission-Lifeline's private rescue boat Eleonore, followed a similar course of action with more than 100 migrants onboard, docking in Sicily despite lacking any authorization, he also faced arrest for a brief period. He was later released pending trial, but if charges against him aren't dropped, he could face up to 20 years in prison as well as a fine to the tune of €300,000.

However, there was not much of a public rallying cry around Reisch – at least not one that would result in a seven-figure donation to come to his aid. In three weeks, Reisch's supporters managed to raise only €19,000, merely 5% of what they were aiming for.

Claus-Peter Reisch did not succeed in attracting much media attention  Photo picture-alliancedpaJ Filous

Ship ahoy

But crowdfunding and donations alone don't spell success for private search and rescue missions. In 2018, German TV presenter Klaas Heufer-Umlauf had raised almost €300,000 to finance the purchase of a new vessel intended to rescue migrants stranded in the Mediterranean. But the project never managed to take off.

After spending the majority of the donated funds on retrofitting and registering a boat called "Golfo Azzurro," the money quickly ran out. The boat was initially registered under the Panaman flag, but following alleged pressure from Italy's government under then-Interior Minister Salvini, Panama stopped cooperation with private sea rescue NGOs.

Heufer-Umlauf and his supporters subsequently spent further funds trying to register the boat elsewhere — to no avail. The administrative costs associated with attempting to register the vessel had resulted in it never leaving port and saving lives. Other private rescue missions are now taking heed to avoid similar mistakes.

Out of sight, out of mind

Axel Steier, spokesman for Mission Lifeline, told InfoMigrants that after weeks of in-depth reporting on Carola Rackete, many journalists simply didn't want to tell the same story all over with another protagonist. "That's just how the media business works," he explained.

Steier also stressed that "Rackete was at the right place and the right time, bringing much-needed attention to the important issue of sea rescue. Many people, who knew nothing about NGO sea rescues, really got to learn about the issues we have to face each day."

He added that after Carola Rackete's case, audiences likely thought that any call to action, such as donations, would benefit all private sea rescue missions, and not just Sea-Watch: "That's the thing with attention spans these days. People have a hard time in differentiating between different organizations. They think we're all the same and that we're all affiliated with Rackete. But in truth, we're all rather different from each other in the way we're run."

Mission Lifeline spokesman Axel Steier blames the decline in donations on the rhetoric of right-wing populists  Photo Mission Lifeline

Hoping for a Christmas miracle

Steier stressed that while some NGOs received funds from lotteries and other places in addition to donations, Mission Lifeline relies almost entirely on donations, "which have steadily been declining since 2015."

"Christmas is still a good time of the year for us. And we still have serial donors, who continue to support our work. But the number of those who decide to donate to us as one-offs has been seriously decreasing. And it's their money that makes all the difference. We really rely on those donations."

Most of the money raised by Mission Lifeline goes into the purchase of new vessels after the previous boats, including the Eleonore, were confiscated by authorities. "Even if the EU agrees on a redistribution mechanism next month, I don't think we will get our boats back. They were confiscated under previous laws, and I doubt that any change in the law will be applied retroactively," Steier told InfoMigrants.

"Right now, we have to raise close to €500,000 to purchase a new boat. And we're only halfway there. Let's hope that it's a good Christmas."


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