Riccardo Gatti is the skipper of the yacht Astral which is part of the Spanish non-governmental organisation Proactive Open Arms fleet, which is on a promotional tour of the Balearics during a break in operations off the Libyan coast battling to rescue and save refugees fleeing for their lives.
I boarded Astral this week in the Real Club Nautico with some of the volunteers showing visitors around and videos of their work off the coast of Libya and explaining the desperate situation. Meanwhile, captain Riccardo was busy arranging a laundry run and plans for lunch.
"For the tens of thousands of people who are rescued off the coast of Libya, these simple daily tasks which we take for granted are impossible. They are dying of hunger, have no work, no money, no future and have to keep out of the grasps of the thousand plus militia which will either shoot them or capture them for human trafficking. Life is cheap, the only people making any money are the militants. They are all over the country, fighting for more power, in many cases they control just a couple of streets, but they control nearly all of the country and treat people however they see fit," 39-year-old Italian Riccardo said.
"The European Union-recognised government in Tripoli controls just half of the capital, the rest of the city and the country is in the hands of the Mafia and militias. The situation is dire, beyond words. The only difference between Libya and Syria is that there are no bombardments yet, but we’ve been fired on from land. Of late the militias have become very aggressive towards us."
Their mission is simple, their rationale concise: "We are lifeguards and we are saving lives."
Started in September 2015, the small Barcelona-based NGO Proactiva Open Arms initially helped refugees "disembark safely" onto the island of Lesbos, Greece. But last year, the organisation, which depends entirely on donations, expanded its humanitarian operation to patrolling the coast off Libya.
The Mediterranean Sea has become "the greatest path to Europe" - and the "most dangerous", the group warns, arguing that the refugees’ journey across the ocean with its risk of drowning is one of the hardest parts of the trip. But this is where Open Arms and a number of other NGOs operating in the area come into action.
Riccardo has been working for charities and foundations all of his life. He has helped marginalised children and a host of other social projects. He then decided to take some time off to upgrade his nautical qualifications and prior to joining Open Arms in 2016, he was working on luxury super yachts. During that time, he got to know the founder of Open Arms, Òscar Camps: they began talking about various projects and Riccardo eventually decided to join the team.
As an NGO, Proactiva developed from Pro-Activa Serveis Aquàtics, a company providing lifeguard and water rescue services, located in Badalona. Due to the refugee crisis and the several high-profile deaths at sea, Òscar Camps travelled to Lesbos along with three other volunteers and that same year Camps was awarded Catalan of the Year. Open Arms also owns a tug, named after the foundation, which has a capacity for up to 600 refugees, while at a stretch Astral can, and has on many occasions, taken 200 on board.
"We tend to work on 15-day cycles. On board we have three full-time members from the NGO - the skipper, engineer and mariner - plus a professional nautical rescue team, cook, medics, two members of the global press to document our work and help spread the word about what is really going on, and the rest are volunteers.
"Lately we’ve been working between 12 to 24 miles off the coast of Libya but the problem is that, apart from being shot at by the militias, we’re all having to patrol and cover a much greater area of coastline. Fortunately, all of the NGOs are working under the orders and control of the Italian Coast Guard and Air Sea Rescue. We are all in continual contact and the Italian authorities issue updates every two to four hours about nautical refugee movements in the area.
"The nearest rescue vessel to any incident will try and get to the scene as quickly as possible. The Italian coast guard doesn’t have enough vessels to deal with the situation alone and European Union missions such as Frontex, The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, don’t really get involved. The naval ships in the area have little or no contact with us and are loathed to get involved most of the time. Italy has invested a great deal of finances and resources into trying to tackle the problem - they’ve even got soldiers patrolling the Niger desert to try and stop the refugee crisis at source - but the rest of Europe doesn’t seem to want to help properly and that is why we are here on a promotional visit. We film everything we do and we use these ports of call to meet the general public and inform them about what is really happening in Libya and Africa as a whole.
"The majority of people we rescue are not Libyans. They are from all over Africa, India and the Middle East. At one time or other they have gone to work in Libya but they are caught in the eye of a hurricane and it’s flee or stay and die. The majority of the refugees we rescue are men aged under 35, and many quite often come aboard having been shot and beaten. On a number of occasions we’ve had to bring women aboard on stretchers because of the pain they are in after having been raped and sexually abused so many times by the militia. And the very desperate will always try and flee with young babies. Like I said, it’s a tragic and desperate situation which is hard for us to deal with at times, but we try not to think about it too much. We have a job to do and that is to do our very best to give the refugees safe passage, to try and prevent them from dying.
"They are not economic refugees, they are not escaping a natural disaster like an earthquake, they are running for their lives. Thirty per cent of Libya’s GDP is generated by human trafficking. How many people know that? And because of the militia activity in Tripoli, refugees have moved further out to the east and west, which is why we have to cover a larger area of coastline. It can now take us up to nine hours sailing to reach a situation.
"We then don’t know if we are going to get boarded by armed militia who will deport the refugees back to Libya and then trade them to another militia and so the cycle goes on. In the past, the militia have been very helpful at times, but lately, like I said, the situation has become very tense and increasingly violent.
"Last year, one of our three ships was hijacked by Libyan militia; fortunately we managed to prevent it from being taken into port in Tripoli. That is one of the reasons why the number of NGO ships in the area has been reduced. Another is the weather, but that has not stopped refugees. This brings bigger problems such as hypothermia; in the summer it’s heat stroke, dehydration and general sickness.
"To really appreciate how extreme the situation is, it has to be seen. One of the biggest hurdles we’re having is the rise in anti-immigration sentiments amongst pockets of European populations, politicians and governments. Even in Italy, when we get to port with the refugees, we get abused by the local fishermen who think we are working with the militia, getting kickbacks and the like. There has been a general rise in attacks on refugee centres and refugees forced to sleep rough. Some have been killed or set alight by neo-Nazi factions which are growing, and all these attitudes are not helped by far-right politicians who accuse all these people of stealing people’s jobs and reducing the quality of life.
"The population of Italy is around 60 million. Last year 160,000 refugees came ashore,. Do you honestly think that’s enough to change the fabric of a country? Plus, we are immigrants. I’m an immigrant in Spain, just like you. But we’re not dying of hunger and fearing for our lives. We can travel where and when we want, I think sometimes we take all that for granted and the refugee crisis is not a political one, it’s humanitarian and that’s how governments should be dealing with it."
Since 2015, Open Arms have saved a total of 58,621 lives. Astral will be in Palma until the morning of 6 March, then in Portals all day on Wednesday, Soller on Thursday and Alcudia on Friday.
* For more information: www.proactivaopenarms.org.