I watched Titus give a talk at the “Innovation Knows No Borders” conference at the Migration Hub, in Berlin, last September. With a spark in his eyes, he started by recalling how he and a group of young Europeans had decided to take it upon themselves to rescue refugees and migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean and founded Jugend Rettet. In one year, their rescue operations saved more than 14 thousand lives, Titus shared proudly. But suddenly, the spark in his eyes extinguished as he said this story didn’t have a happy ending.
Their ship, the Iuventa, had been seized the month before by the Italian authorities, under the allegation of collusion with Lybian smugglers. As Titus expressed his sadness and frustration, a young boy raised his hand from the audience and thanked Titus – “I was probably one of the people you saved at sea, and if it weren’t for the volunteers out there, many of us would be dead”, he said. The air in the room became as cold as the sea must have been that day, and as I glance back at Titus on stage, the space left by the extinguished spark in his eyes had now been filled with the tears he couldn’t hold back.
Later that day, I found Titus outside, hugged him, and told him his story needed to be shared with more people. So here it is:
Thank you so much for your time, Titus. Would you like to start by introducing yourself in the way you feel is most accurate?
I am honored! My name is Titus Molkenbur, I am 26 years old, doing my Masters in Migration, Mobility, and Development. I did my Undergrad in Philosophy and Economics in Germany, and then I did internships with the UN and the EU Parliament. I really didn’t like those experiences, I didn’t like the working atmosphere.
So, in the beginning of 2016, I moved to Berlin. Jugend Rettent (JR) was already in the making and I joined as one of the founding members. I’d like to stress that – I’m not the founder or the co-founder or JR, it was a group effort, we want to stress that it’s not about the individual.
How did you come across this specific topic – was it something you had in mind before, that you wanted to work on the migration crisis, or with the refugees? Or was it a coincidence?
A little bit of both.
I definitely felt this topic was so important and we are not doing enough, we are not on the right side of history, I feel.
It was a little bit coincidental that I met these guys… and then it was very natural, we thought “hey let’s try this, let’s get a boat to try to rescue these people”, because, at the end of the day, the idea was also to shame the European institutions and say:
“If we, as young people, could manage to save so many people, how come you cannot do that, how come you can accept all these deaths at your borders?”.
It all came out of this very strong feeling of helplessness, to some extent… So we rebuilt the ship [the Iuventa] and when the ship was operational we started our first mission, at the end of July 2016.
How would the typical mission go?
The typical mission would go like this: we had a base camp in Malta, from where the ship would leave for 14 days with a crew of 15 people. They were all volunteers, many of which professionals in their respective areas – we would have doctors, nurses, engineers, seafarers… all of them had experience in the field.
They would go out and patrol in front of the Libyan coast with our ship. Roughly in the morning, you start patrolling around 4 am, because the ships usually leave in the middle of the night, so that’s the hours when you start to see them.
Typically, how many boats would come up on a normal day?
That’s difficult to answer because the year 2016 and the year 2017 are distinctively different in the way the rescue operations were…
The first day of operation in 2016 we had the boat full, with 400 people, and it was just packed!
Way above what was sensible, but we needed to get them out.
Usually, 2016 was more relaxed, we would have 3 or 4 boats at once and we could take care of them. We would recognize the boat and the condition and we would go in a faster boat to distribute blankets to the people and life jackets if they didn’t have them. Then we would take out children and women, transfer the people and take care of the medical cases, and, usually, there would also be other ships involved – other NGOs, the Italian coast guard… sometimes even FRONTEX, but that was not very often.
And then you bring them on board, you provide some medical care, and you bring them to the Italian shore?
We’re the ones to give them some medical assistance and then hand them over to big ships, who would then bring them to Italy because our ship was too small for that. We were just the first responders, sort of.
When you saw a boat of refugees, in what shape and state would you find them?
There are roughly 4 categories of boats, I would say: the one that is more common nowadays is the so-called rubber boat, one of these very, very long, distinctive, 15-meter-long rubber boats with approximately 130 people on them.
And what is their normal capacity?
I don’t know… Twenty? Fifty?
There’s the rubber boat, there are the smaller wooden boats with around 80 people; then, middle-sized wooden boats that can range from, let’s say, 250 to 400 people; and then you have the really, really big wooden boats that can have up to a thousand people.
So, the condition of the people can really vary: if we find them in one of those smaller wooden boats at 8 o’clock in the morning, usually they’ve been on the water for 6 or 7 hours and they’re usually fine. But if they come, for instance, in these rubber boats, with one foot in the water and one foot inside the boat… and on the inside of the boat that’s where the women and children sit.
The women are sitting on the inside to be more protected from the waves – the flip side of that is that there’s water coming inside the boat from the waves and there is always gasoline inside, usually in open containers.
So, if you mix gasoline with salt water, it makes for this really, really acid and corrosive mix in the water. And if they’re sitting on that for hours and hours, often times their legs, their genital area… get burnt by that, so that’s really horrible.
If you find them in the middle of the day or later, when they have been in the sun for 10, 12, 15 hours, without having anything to drink… usually, the conditions in which they are kept in Libya are also horrible, they didn’t have any water… Then it gets really dangerous because they are dehydrated, they faint… Often people die because they faint and they fall in the water inside the boat and they just drown… So that’s really, really, really dangerous.
If you have the wooden boats, usually there are at least 2 decks. The middle ones have 2 decks, the big ones can have up to 3 decks. So, the poorer people that pay the least amount of money usually go to the lower decks, where the same thing can happen because of the fumes, the gasoline… they’re stuck in the bottom and then there’s not enough air and often they suffocate down there, and with the sheer amount of people inside they just get crushed.
What shocked you the most on your first mission?
The situation of the people when you approach them, and you just talk to them and they’re not responding… We give them these blankets and sometimes they just curl up… and that’s really something.
When you see these people, and you look them in the eyes, and there’s just nothing there… there are many people just completely broken… they have been through so much! It’s really disturbing because you don’t usually see that in our societies.
This one mother, she handed me her child because she couldn’t hold her anymore…
That’s just… [goes silent]
Can you please tell me your version of events and what happened recently with the Iuventa?
It started mostly in Spring 2017, when a prosecutor from Catania, Mr. Zuccaro, started to plant the allegations that the NGOs were colluding with smugglers, saying “Who is paying them? Why are they there?”, insinuating that we were paid by the smugglers or other sources.
Then, in July 2017, there started to appear this rumor that there should be a Code of Conduct (CC) for the NGOs.
One of the key remarks of the Minister of the Interior of the Italian State claimed that they needed to control the NGOs. It was wrong, there was no need for any of that – we were always operating within the boundaries of the law, we always cooperated with the authorities. We were actually seeing less involvement of navy vessels or other military ships – if you look at the numbers, the NGOs were responsible for almost 40% of the rescues between 2016-17. That number just kept rising, so we thought, “it’s not us that need control, we need help!” – we needed the Government to take up their job.
And then we got the official invitation to come to Italy to have a discussion on the CC.
I went to Rome to talk to the Minister of the Interior to say what we didn’t like on this CC.
For us there were 3 reasons we couldn’t sign the CC: the first was they wanted us to bring an armed policeman on board of our ship, which is a) against International Law outside of territorial waters of Italy, and b) would make the situation incredibly dangerous for us to have an armed policeman on board, and would also go against the humanitarian principle of being independent. The second was, they had this clause where this transshipment that we would treat people first and then transport them to bigger ships, they wanted us to stop exactly that, and we said this was the one thing that made our ship effective. They also wanted us to hand over the information we gathered about the people we rescued to the Italian authorities.
So, these conditions together would have gone against our ethics as a humanitarian organization, they would have impeded our capabilities, and make us go against the law of the sea.
So, we told them we were sorry we could not sign this CC, for the reasons I just told you.
Then, 2 days later, on the 2nd August, our ship was confiscated, arguing that we had collaborated with the smugglers within rescue operations we undertook.
In the material they handed over to us, they mentioned certain events in which they claim we did something illegal, which is not, in any way, what actually happened – and we can prove that every single allegation they’re saying is wrong.
Are you going to try to solve the problem through another approach, or are you going to go all the way to try to get the ship back and go back to rescue?
We want to get the ship back, that’s the first objective. We also, like we always did, want to promote grassroots political activism from the network of our supporters.
The thing is the situation on the Mediterranean will change significantly with the deals Italy undertook in Libya, and also the funding the EU sent to the government of Sarraj. There are, again and again, rumors that Italy and/or the EU paid militias in Libya to stop refugees from leaving. Which is something that influences the flux of migrants on that route significantly.
If you solely look at the humanitarian perspective, it’s unspeakable, to cooperate with criminal entities, not only the militias but also the Libyan coastguards, whom we know have been involved with smuggling themselves…
We know all these things but, for Italy, it’s also an act of desperation. Countries like Germany and other countries in Europe don’t want to uphold regulation, don’t want to deal with the problem, they left it to Italy to deal with it, and to some extent, it’s understandable that Italy needs to find a solution… but it’s just not right, it’s just not right.
That’s the frustrating part – you can really see the political workings and who’s doing what, but understanding it doesn’t make it ok.
It’s important to analyze on a political level why these things are happening, but it doesn’t discount it, it’s wrong what they’re doing there. It’s also not productive – it’s going to support networks that are not interested in having a democratic political state in Libya, it will foster the violence in this region and lead to the death and suffering of the refugees and migrants who are stranded there – you can’t just focus on refugees, there are also migrants, different people with all kinds of backgrounds. This is a very complex issue.
Do you consider going into politics and trying to solve this with a top-down approach? If you were to do so, what measures would you implement?
I’m not sure if I would like to go into politics… It has certainly crossed my mind, but I’m not sure if I can live with that.
For me, I have an Economics background, and I think you have, to some extent, to always look at the money supply situation – there’s obviously a great demand for people to come to Europe for various reasons, and on the other hand, there are no legal routes for them to do so.
If you’re a refugee in Syria, or Yemen, or in any other country that has a situation that constitutes to be a refugee, there is no way you can just board an airplane and just come to Europe, it’s not possible. In order to get a refugee status, you still have to go through these routes, through illegal smuggling networks.
Part of the solution must be to give people a chance to apply for refugee status, to apply for asylum in their country, or give them the chance to fly to get a paper themselves.
The second part would also be, of course, to look at the broader spectrum of migration. We have to understand that migration is directly correlated to our lifestyle and our exclusion of the poor of the south.
You mentioned populism, nationalism and far-right movements – is that something that worries you now, also with the recent win for the AfD in Germany. Are you worried about this rise in Europe?
Yes, significantly. We have felt the change in the debate and the discussion of the last 3 years. It was a very personal experience – the number of death threats and the pure hatred that came through that debate that turned into such a poisonous debate. It was something very difficult to observe.
If you were to sit down with one of those people that sent you a death threat because they believe it’s dangerous to bring migrants and they’re going to ruin Europe, what would you tell them?
I always like to ask them… if you are on the water, if you have a child or somebody who’s holding on to the boat, and you had the choice of either rescuing them or pushing them to the water, would you really be willing to push that person? Could you do that? If yes, that’s the end of the conversation. If no, we have to talk about this.
That’s what’s at stake – how far are we willing to go?
Since you started, do you think there’s more help and more awareness, or the opposite?
No, the opposite, definitely. It’s getting way more polarized, way more hate, less constructive debates…
What was the most rewarding moment you experienced?
There were so many… This whole experience has definitely been… it sounds so cheesy to say, but it did profoundly change my life in many different ways. In general, this feeling of, “I’ve done this, and I’ve made this decision, and that’s why this one thing happened in the world that would not have happened otherwise…”. This feeling is just so powerful.
One last question: what message do you want to leave to the European youth – such as you and me – and everyone that will hopefully read this interview?
There’s a couple of things I’ve learned.
First, we should be more aware of our privileges, but also of the powers that we already have.
That doesn’t mean you have to always do the big things, you don’t have to do what we did or similar big projects – it’s perfectly fine for you to say “hey, I need a job, I need to pay my loans, and I have many different things to worry about” – it’s perfectly fine to live your life like that. But there are many more things you can do than you imagine – there are opportunities to do good everywhere, there’s so much you can do!
Such as what? Do you want to leave any suggestions?
One NGO I really admire is called Give Directly, focusing on direct unconditional cash payments to the poorest of the poor. There are many different things happening – with your money and your time, you can do so much!
If you’re somebody who wants to do something in your city, if that’s important to you, there’s definitely an NGO or initiative around the corner to do that. If you’re interested in the bigger picture, do that. But definitely, do not ignore! Also, be political!
We should not be afraid to be political.
There’s this notion that being political is not cool, you don’t want to be annoying… But you have to challenge your friends, your family, yourself, with political thought. If you’re having a fight with them, fine! Have a fight! That’s what family is for, and it’s part of the political process. Do not be afraid of that.
That’s a great message! Thank you so much, Titus.
This conversation took place via Skype on the 11th October 2017. If you want to know more about Jugend Rettet and the status of the Iuventa, visit jugendrettet.org
Thanks for reading!