A rescue platform for refugeesHow art is saving the lives of refugees in the Mediterranean
As Europe closes its borders, it seems it is abandoning refugees to their fate on the high seas. But not everyone and not everywhere: Since October, a floating island has offered a safety zone to refugees in distress at sea – complete with food, life buoys and solar-powered emergency telephones. Read More
As Europe systematically closes its borders; as rich nations stand idly by and watch while thousands of refugees are forced to take to the sea in search of a better world, an idea has emerged that almost seems like a mirage:
At the end of October, a floating platform designed to save people from drowning was installed in in the Mediterranean – equipped with food, life buoys and solar-powered emergency call devices. It is the first of a total of 1,000 such platforms in an ambitious plan designed to save lives along the dangerous sea route from Tunisia to Italy.
This first platform was preceded by a satirical story designed to draw attention to the plight of refugees:
In October 2015, a press release was sent to all major media outlets in Germany claiming that the Republic of Austria had plans to build a bridge across the Mediterranean to make it easier for refugees to cross the sea. Since it was projected that the “largest EU infrastructure project and economic stimulus plan ever” would not be complete until 2030, 1,000 platforms were to be anchored in the Mediterranean as an interim solution. According to a fake quote from Austrian Refugee Coordinator Christian Konrad, these would “immediately start effectively preventing the silent deaths in the sea.” The authors claimed the platforms were financed by the Austrian government and the Strabag company.
At the end of October, a floating platform designed to save people from drowning was installed in in the Mediterranean.
Between utopia and reality
Of course the story is much more complicated. Neither the Austrian government nor the Strabag company were aware of their supposed involvement, and Refugee Coordinator Christian Konrad was very surprised to read his own apparent quote on the story. It is true that the platform bears the Austrian flag. But the Austrian government did not instigate the project. It was the brainchild of a German artist's collective, the “Centre for Political Beauty”, which has staged a number of spectacular campaigns to call attention to the plight of refugees. This past autumn, while European politicians engaged in heated discussion about setting limits, shifted responsibility back and forth and generally showed every sign of being completed overwhelmed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe, the Centre wanted to make a statement – and highlight a very different approach. The collective was on a mission to “rescue Europe's humanity.”
So while the story of the bridge and its backers was pure fantasy, the platform is very real. It has floated on the waters of the Mediterranean between Italy and Tunisia since October 2015. It was christened the “Aylan 1” in memory of the small Kurdish boy who drowned on his journey across the Mediterranean last September, and whose picture went around the world as a symbol of all the victims of the sea.
Like young Aylan, thousands die every year in the waters of the Mediterranean. Forced to flee their homelands, they cast off in boats from Libya, Morocco or Turkey in an attempt to reach the European mainland. The escalating civil war in Syrian has only served to worsen the crisis. The route between Tunisia and Sicily is particularly hazardous, and activists estimate that only between 60 to 70 percent survive the journey. Yet Europe is ramping up efforts to close its borders – making it complicit in the deaths in the Mediterranean.
The lifesaving platform campaign shows how easy it would be to change this depressing statistic. In just 10 days, the artists involved collected over 20,000 euros from private citizens who supported their work. Matched by funds from sponsors, the collective raised over 40,000 euros that went into developing and building one platform.
The idea is simple: If a total of 1,000 floating platforms were installed along the route from Tunisia and Sicily, there would always be one within swimming distance for refugees in distress at sea. The 6x6 meter float is made of plastic suitable for the high seas and provides a safe haven for around 120 people. It has food reserves, an emergency call device, and life preservers. The platform is solidly anchored at around 100 meters below the surface and outfitted with a photovoltaic panel that supplies the satellite telephone and position lights with electricity.
An on-board camera enables remote monitoring to identify people in need of rescue, an activity the Centre for Political Beauty would like to have Amnesty International or Frontex, the European border control agency, take over. “We would like to see the coast guards and border control agencies accept the platform and rescue anyone found on it,” Leopold Bärenthal, a member of the team said in an interview with bento.de.
Utopia could become reality in Europe – quickly and with relatively little effort
Is installing a rescue platform in the Mediterranean really a viable solution? From a legal standpoint at least it is. Equipped with the right position lights, the rescue platform is perfectly legal.
Ultimately though the story of the rescue platform is just that – a tale, performance art. The remaining 99 platforms will never be built. Not a single European government, never mind the Austrian refugee coordinator and the Strabag company, has shown any willingness to support such a plan.
If one small artist's collective can successfully design and build a rescue platform, how much could a unified Europe achieve?
“Talking about installing 1,000 platforms in the Mediterranean is meant to get people thinking, to remind them that we can do more,” Philipp Ruch, head of the Centre, told Vice magazine. “So often we can do more than we initially think we can. As a country, we have so much German cutting-edge technology at our fingertips.” He added, “the West is drowning in the death toll, the sheer number falling victim to the Mediterranean.”
The project shows how little it would take, just a solid plan and bit of money, to truly help people in need. Ultimately our will is the deciding factor. Of course a plastic raft could never save everyone in danger at sea. But if one small artist's collective can successfully design and build a rescue platform, how much could a unified Europe achieve?