This post is also available in: Spanish
Juanfe Jiménez is the medical co-ordinator of NGO Proactiva Open Arms and took part in a plenary session entitled ‘Violence to Displaced People and Refugees: Sanctuary Cities’ during the World Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace held in Madrid. He talks here about his work, what pushes people to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, possible solutions, the power that citizens hold, and much more.
Video: Álvaro Orús / Editors: Tony Robinson and Juana Pérez Montero
You refer to the people that you save as ‘shipwrecked.’ What does that term mean for you?
Everyone that we save runs the risk of drowning at sea. Having set out from a beach, usually in Libya, in a rubber dinghy crammed full of around 140 people, after a maximum of 48 hours their fuel runs out and they can go no further. Getting to dry land is impossible. The people we find are abandoned in the middle of the sea with no sight of land, not knowing where they are or what lies in store, and with no lifejackets, clothes, shoes, food or water. If we are lucky enough to locate that small floating group of people in the sea, then we can take them on board our ship, give them assistance and take them to a safe harbour.
Certain parts of society view refugees as a danger. What can you say to them?
Well, I think that this is a media-driven campaign of misinformation to pollute the opinions of the population. At a simple level, the number of refugees – which I can’t give you now as a I don’t have the figures to hand, but anyone can find them – that have arrived in Europe is ridiculously small compared to the overall population. In other words, they are portrayed as invading, as consuming our resources, as destroying our quality of life and so on, even when their numbers are so small. I think this is what is happening, that this campaign to poison people’s minds is being conducted for political reasons and leads the population to believe that refugees are dangerous. Clearly, refugees are made up of all sorts: good and bad, tall and short – they are people, like everyone else.
Who supports your cause and who is against it?
On the part of the population in general, I think there is fairly widespread support. Anyone who is slightly human, who has some shred of humanity, has to support what we do. The groups that are against us…well, it’s the extremist groups, the people that put out the sort of misinformation I was talking about before. There are also public institutions and political authorities that put obstacles in our way. Italy and Malta have closed their ports to our ship, which is in violation of all international maritime rules and human rights. We are not even permitted to enter their ports to take supplies on board or change crew.
Talking of action, what was your experience in Lesbos like?
Lesbos was the first place we went to. We kept hearing compelling stories about the migrant crisis, about the people running great risks to pass through Turkey to arrive in Greece. That was what drove the people who were then running our organisation to go there and offer their help. They were rescue workers essentially. Once they got there and saw what was happening and that no one was doing anything, Oscar Camps, Open Arms’ founder and president, created an NGO and looked to find ways to stop people drowning and help them reach land safely.
Are you currently working with the national lifeboat services? Will you expand your operations?
Yes, we reached an agreement with the Spanish Maritime Safety to collaborate on safety operations at sea in the south, in the Alboran Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar. We have been working there together for two months. There hasn’t been a great deal of activity so we have decided to return to Barcelona. Our organisation saves people’s lives and we don’t want to remain inactive, so our immediate objective is to return to the Mediterranean.
What do you think is the root of this problem?
I always come back to the same point. Whenever we discuss immigration, we end the conversation with the same phrase that “we need to work on the root cause.” People flee from areas of conflict, where there is poverty, terrorism and danger. In general, this is all caused by the richest powers in the world, who want to exploit the natural resources or control the areas around their borders. This prevents other countries from developing as they should and means the interests of the local people are neglected. These people are completely forgotten.
What should be done to resolve this serious problem, and who should do it?
I’m not an expert in geo-strategy and I don’t claim to be able to talk about it, but I do believe that there are countries in the world that have a wealth of natural resources, and yet the same countries have the greatest levels of poverty, misery, violence and so on. I think that this is, in some way, helped and supported – or at least, not impeded – by those countries that could do something about it. I have just mentioned that are a set of conditions that encourage this situation such as wars. As long as there are wars, there will be people who want to escape from wars. Therefore, I would say that if we can end conflicts, we will get rid of the issue of people fleeing their countries. It is such a simple solution, so uncomplicated and straightforward that it almost seems unexpected.
Clearly, no one wants to leave where they are from, their own home or their family, who they may never see again. This all takes place for a reason and it requires political will to ensure it does not happen. I’d also say that we citizens have a certain amount of power to change things with our vote; we elect the people who take the decisions, and perhaps we should think about that power. We can mobilise when we see that human rights are being violated all around us and throughout the world, and when we see that international laws and rights at sea are being broken. We must mobilise. It took a long time to win all the rights that we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War and I can’t believe that we have been slowly losing them in the last few years.
What does it feel like to save human lives? Can you tell us about a particular time?
Saving human lives is a big word. I don’t consider myself to be a person that saves lives, but just someone who is lucky enough to be able to rescue other people. It is a blessing to be able to go to a part of the world where I encounter people whose lives I can save simply though the simple gesture of extending my arm into the water. There is no more beautiful feeling than this; nothing makes you feel better than seeing the face of someone who suddenly feels safe and who knows that they will not drown at sea.
Can you communicate your experience to others?
That’s the reason why we talk to others, and explain what we do. It’s the reason why we go wherever people invite us to talk about what we want to do. It’s obvious that our enthusiasm is contagious. Ever since my first mission and my first experience of cooperation, I have always returned saying the same thing: any good person comes back infected by a sense of humanity, and the value of working together. I encourage everyone to read widely and learn about the conflicts in the world, learn about what is going on, and take action.
Translation from Italian by Malcolm Gilmour