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How a Swiss man tries to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea

More than a thousand migrants have drowned this year during crossings in the Mediterranean. Swiss pilot Pascal Stadelmann is trying to provide emergency aid from the air and rescue boats in distress.

"I grew up very privileged and want to give something back to society with my mission - because I don't think anyone wants anyone to drown." As simple as 31-year-old Pascal Stadelmann's motives are, the situation on the Mediterranean has been dramatic for years.

Human traffickers in Libya or Tunisia push migrants into often completely overcrowded boats and send them out to sea with barely enough fuel. Some succeed in crossing, many are intercepted and brought back - others disappear without a trace. According to estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 1300 people have died in the crossings to Europe this year alone.

Help from the air

Various non-governmental organisations are trying to close the gaps in sea rescue. This is done by means of civilian rescue boats or monitoring flights, which are carried out by volunteers like Pascal Stadelmann. He flies for the "Humanitarian Pilots Initiative" - HPI for short.

He and his crew take off from the Italian island of Lampedusa on reconnaissance tours lasting several hours. As soon as the team discovers a boat with refugees, they report it to the state rescue coordination centres and contact the civilian rescue service Sea-Watch. The latter then tries to bring the people on board with their ships. But the rescue operations are not the only focus of the missions, as Pascal explains: "We are the civilian eye in the Mediterranean. We document what is happening and thus create transparency."

At the moment, however, this endeavour is more difficult. Civilian pilots are currently not allowed to enter Libyan airspace. This means that a large part of the sea remains inaccessible to the HPI crew. This is frustrating, Pascal explains, "this is the part where most disasters happen and we don't have a chance to help people there or see what is happening to them".

The Frontex issue

Drones of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, also operate in the air to locate and report boats in distress. But how exactly rescues, rejections and interceptions are organised is often non-transparent.

This is the major point of criticism leveled at Frontex by various NGOs: they would not inform the next ship or the responsible state authority in each case, but instead would mostly fall back on the Libyan coast guard. Frontext responds to SRF's criticism by saying that saving human lives is always in the foreground and that the agency does not cooperate directly with the Libyan coast guard.

Combating symptoms

Back in HPI`s small plane. On this day, the crew only sees two empty boats. These are nevertheless documented, "at best we can draw informative data from them later," says Stadelmann.

He immediately takes up the accusation that the flights are only symptom control. It is a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, Pascal continues. He says: "I wish people didn't have to flee and could stay in their countries of origin - but it's not that simple.

SRF 4 News, 6.10.2022, 9:50 Uhr


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