At about 4:20 a.m. on June 18, 2017, Dariush Beigui received an urgent call from maritime authorities that a wooden boat, packed with people, was in distress. As the captain of the Iuventa, a rescue ship dedicated to saving migrants on the Mediterranean, he was used to such calls and responded immediately.
When the Iuventa arrived at the scene, in open seas about 17 nautical miles from the Libyan city of Sabratah, the situation was even more treacherous than expected. Rather than a single smuggler’s boat, there were three — rickety and severely overcrowded, each with about 150 desperate and exhausted people on board.
The Iuventa’s 15-strong crew of volunteers swung into action. Using a small high-speed rescue boat to deliver life vests to the migrants, they ferried hundreds onboard, eventually delivering them to larger boats that would take them to safety in Italy. As the day wore on, two more boats needed rescue. By the time Beigui stood down from the bridge of his ship around 11 p.m. that night, his crew, working with two other rescue ships, had saved 560 migrants from potentially drowning. It was a good day, all things considered; Beigui had seen too many needless deaths during his time at sea.
To many, the volunteer crew’s bravery in saving hundreds of lives would qualify them as heroes. But the current right-wing Italian government sees things differently, and its powerful anti-immigration deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has waged a relentless campaign to shut down the work of the charity-run rescue vessels saving migrants in the Mediterranean since coming to power last year. He’s even willing to throw them in jail to get what he wants.
As a result, Beigui and nine of his Iuventa colleagues are currently facing up to 20 years in jail as a result of an Italian criminal investigation into allegations that they assisted illegal immigration that day and during another rescue in August 2016 — an accusation Beigui rejects as a politically-motivated distortion of their work.
“It’s like a personal fight of Salvini’s against us,” said Beigui.
Beigui, who as part of his rescue work has encountered such horrors as the corpse of a migrant with a trafficker’s bullet in his head, says the notion that his crew would collaborate with such a cut-throat and exploitative network is ridiculous.
“I would never in my wildest dreams think of working with assholes like them,” the 40-year-old told VICE News from his home in Hamburg, Germany.
Rather, he said, his crew were responding to a desperate humanitarian need to save lives on the Mediterranean — an activity that Italy’s populist, anti-immigration government has been pushing to criminalize since coming to power.
Salvini argues that the NGO boats, which he describes as “sea taxis” for human traffickers, constitute a “pull factor” for illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. His crackdown has seen rescue boats like the Iuventa banned from Italian ports, subjected to criminal investigations, and stripped of their flags of convenience, rendering them unable to sail.
Of the 10 NGO-operated rescue vessels that once operated on the Central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy, only one is still active, and even then only sporadically — a situation that the United Nations says has deprived the region of a vitally needed service, and made the crossing more deadly for those who attempt it. Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Italy, said data this year suggested that the number of attempted crossings actually dropped when a rescue boat was present, debunking the “pull factor” theory promoted by Salvini.
‘If you weren’t here, we would be dead soon’
Beigui sailed the first of his three-week missions with the Iuventa, which is operated by the German NGO Jugend Rettet (Youth Rescues), in 2016. He had been volunteering at a kitchen for refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos when he heard about the rescue ship, and realized he had skills that could be better used elsewhere.
“I hate cooking, I don’t even have an oven in my flat,” said Beigui, whose day job is captaining a barge on Hamburg’s waterways. “Cooking isn’t something I can do well, but driving a boat is.”
In the course of his three missions on board the Iuventa, and a fourth onboard another German-run rescue boat, the Sea Watch, he estimates he has personally been involved in the rescue of more than 5,000 people on the Mediterranean.
“Often, people need to be helped on board because they can barely walk,” Beigui said. “People start to cry, start to pray, they’re grateful for surviving this unbelievable nightmare. You see it in their faces — if you weren’t here, we would be dead soon.”
The rescues are not always successful. The traffickers’ overcrowded boats, made of rubber or wood, go down in a matter of minutes if they capsize. During Beigui’s first mission, the ship could not make it in time to a boat in distress carrying about 130 passengers. All the crew was able to recover were three corpses.
The migrants carry with them horror stories of the suffering they’ve endured, both along the treacherous route from their sub-Saharan homes to Libya, and in the Libyan camps, where abuse and violence is endemic. Their accounts filter back to Beigui through his colleagues, but he says he can’t handle hearing them directly.
“It’s hard enough on the boat, but if I heard these stories face-to-face I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I can always say I’ve got something to do on the bridge,” he said.
Helping traffickers — or saving lives?
Two months after the June 2017 rescue mission, the Iuventa’s operations were halted when the Italian coastguard confiscated their 33-meter former fishing boat, the first time they had seized a humanitarian rescue ship. Prosecutors accused the ship’s crew of having “aided and abetted illegal migration” by colluding with the Libya-based human traffickers.
The investigation into the luventa had reportedly been triggered in 2016, after an Italian private security guard employed on a rescue boat operated by the NGO Save the Children believed he had witnessed suspicious interactions between the Iuventa and smugglers. The guard, according to Germany’s Zeit, brought his allegations to Salvini, who reportedly instructed him to continue to gather evidence and forward it on. The guard later made a statement to Italian authorities, who wiretapped the phones of the Iuventa crew and bugged the bridge of the ship.
But evidence presented publicly by the Italian authorities to date — claiming that Iuventa crew communicated with the smugglers, and helped direct their empty boats back towards Libya for reuse — has been refuted by an independent team of researchers at London’s Goldsmith University. “The results are clear: There is no evidence of collusion between the Iuventa’s crew and smugglers,” said Lorenzo Pezzani, who led the forensic analysis based on available footage and records from the scene.
Nicola Canestrini, lead attorney for the Iuventa, said the case was a critical test of the Italian government’s campaign against humanitarian rescue ships.
“The outcome of this process does not only concern the 10 personally, but will also have a major impact on civilian search and rescue efforts overall and the general debate on the rightfulness of humanitarian aid and lifesaving activities for migrants,” she said.
Italy’s Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Like a number of his colleagues, Beigui continued to work on other rescue boats following the seizure of the Iuventa, until advice from his lawyers last year that he risked pre-trial detention if found in Italian territorial waters. Despite the legal threat hanging over him, Beigui says the worst aspect of the case is on the ongoing lack of rescue ships it has created on the Mediterranean, where Europe-bound migrants continue to require help.
Last week, the sole remaining NGO-run rescue boat, Sea Watch 3, picked up 53 migrants off the Libyan coast. While Italy, which has insisted the ship return them to Libya, has allowed 10 passengers to disembark on medical grounds, the ship is still searching for a safe port to deliver the remaining people onboard.
“For me I’m safe, except for possibly going to prison, but I don’t need to fear for my life,” said Beigui. “What’s concerning for me is that the lack of boats has made crossing the Mediterranean even more dangerous, and people are just ignoring this.”
Cover Image: Daruish Beigui (Credit: Pail Lovis Wagner)