Ben Cowles takes a look back at the podcast interviews he did this year, hoping that the words of those fighting back against Fortress Europe will inspire others to tear its walls down
“I HAD this moment after our third rescue,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) midwife Kira Smith says during our interview about the charity’s last refugee rescue mission in the central Mediterranean on the Geo Barents ship.
“I was on a 2am to 4am deck watch, and I was sitting there with a colleague as most of the survivors were sleeping,” she says. The crew had rescued 180 people in three operations in just two days. They had also recovered 10 dead bodies.
“I said to him, ‘If the world could see this right now, if the world could see this suffering, if they could see what they’ve gone through in their home countries and in Libya, I’d like to believe that if people could see this, then there wouldn’t be this problem’.”
The problem she refers to is that European Union states have either given up trying to save lives in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, in the Channel between Britain and France, at the borders between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, Spain and Morocco, and along the bloc’s eastern borders, leaving people to drown, starve or freeze to death, or they have actively made their borders deadlier.
Another problem is that European states have also deliberately hindered and even tried to criminalise the activities of the activists and civil society organisations that have stepped in where they left off.
About 1,500 people have drowned in the central Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration‘s (IOM) latest estimates. And over 31,400 people were returned to Libya in 2021, the IOM states.
Many of those pushed back to the country by the EU-supported Libyan Coastguards are then held in Libya’s condemned immigration detention centres.
In November, three prominent human rights groups called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate possible crimes against humanity being committed on migrants and refugees in Libya.
The three groups — the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, Lawyers for Justice in Libya, and the International Federation for Human Rights — also told the ICC that EU migration policies have “significantly contributed to this grave situation.”
The situation is undeniably bleak for the refugees at Fortress Europe’s edges, and it’s getting worse by the day. But I don’t want to write another depressing article.
The media often leaves people feeling hopeless, that the terrible things happening in the world are just the way things are, that this is just human nature, that everything is out of our hands, and the best we can hope for is that the political elite will sort it out for us.
Well, bollocks to that.
Earlier this year, I started a podcast and called it The Civil Fleet, the term used to refer to the loose coalition of activist groups saving lives in the Mediterranean. And despite not having the equipment (nor the skills, experience or knowledge, really) to produce it professionally, I thought if I don’t do this now, will I ever?
And so I bought myself a fairly decent microphone and began reaching out to my contacts.
So far, I’ve produced 15 episodes, and have a 16th in the works. Each one is an interview with at least one person involved with the activist-led refugee rescue and support operations across Europe.
My hopes for the podcast are that it draws more attention to what’s happening at Europe’s edges.
But, as the late, great journalist Robert Fisk once wrote, rarely do journalists “move mountains or bring down regimes; instead, we just chip, chip, chip away at the rock face, hoping that someone notices — so that no one can say ‘we didn’t know’.”
And therefore my ultimate goal for the podcast is that, by hearing from the people who have decided to take action against Fortress Europe, listeners will realise that they too can take action against this injustice, or at least help those who are already doing so.
Opposing Fortress Europe may feel futile at times. However, I take inspiration from the words of US science fiction author Ursula K Le Guin: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
I asked the renowned academic, activist and author Noam Chomsky earlier this year what he thought of the situation at Europe’s borders. And in his typically short yet incisive style, he replied: “Europe’s behaviour is a scandal. Even worse than the US, which is quite an achievement.
“Fortunately, there are brave and courageous people upholding what remains of Europe’s claim to integrity.”
Below are just a few quotes from some of those brave and courageous people that I have had the pleasure to interview on The Civil Fleet Podcast this past year, outlining where we are and what we can all do to pull the fortress down.
Some of the below has been edited for brevity and clarity, but nothing has been taken out of context nor the meanings changed.
Simon Campbell, Border Violence Monitoring Network
“WE ARE at a pretty dystopian moment in terms of the applications of border violence and a right-wing migration policy. That said, I think there are actions that all of us can take as activists and allies to this struggle.
“Tying in with different struggles, whether its Kenmore Street and the anti-raids actions that are going on in the UK, but also being reflected in countries like Germany at the moment as well.
“Looking at the way borders are seeping into the heart of out societies and how we can counter them is an important step.
“Once we start to act collectively on those things, we can also start to challenge illegal border procedures that are going on in other countries.
“Campaigning in our own communities is as much a step in countering what’s going on as it is, say, going to Lesbos and helping out there.”
[Taken from episode 8, which you can find here apple.co/3hc7BsN, spoti.fi/3h0LfvL, or here: bit.ly/3A5meHe]
Natalie Gruber, Josoor
“ONE OF the main things I’ve learnt in my life, and one of the things I wish I was taught much earlier, is that if you pick a social justice issue that you care about and start doing something about it – whatever it is, whatever your ability.
“If you just start with something, you will very quickly, and much easier than you might think, get to a level where you will start to influence things, where you are actually being heard.
“I never thought I’d be in a position like this. But if everybody knew, if we were actually taught how powerful each of us can be, I think the world would be a much better place.”
[Taken from episode 9, which you can find here apple.co/3zE1iGn, spoti.fi/3eKWfeS, or here bit.ly/3y2D9Zt]
Sophie W, Sea Eye
“IT’S IMPORTANT to focus on what actually matters and what is actually feasible. One thing that I always tell people is; this is a fake problem.
The whole ‘refugee crisis’ as it’s being portrayed isn’t a ‘refugee’ crisis at all. It’s a crisis of humanity, a crisis of empathy, of human rights.
“But the possibilities for change are endless. You just need to be creative. Most people are much smarter and more creative than I am. Think of whatever you can do, with whatever you have at hand.
“We’re never going to say no to donations, because ships are extensive as hell. If you have a few pounds left over, we’d be very glad to receive them from you.
“I think it’s very important to stay informed on the topic and talk to people about it. We have to keep talking about it because I feel that outside of this bubble, many people don’t even realise that this is still going on, that people are dying.
“Actually, that’s the most important thing is: don’t get frustrated. I know it’s overwhelming, but just keep going. It’s good to stay angry, and it’s good to stay sad because those are the emotions that make us act. So we need them. We just have to channel them into something proactive.”
[Taken from episode 10, which you can find here: bit.ly/3fJGdCG, here spoti.fi/2X2G8Dv, or here apple.co/37sVBPk]
Kim, Channel Rescue
“I DON’T see that the UK government is going to change its attitude to migration and suddenly see that what its doing is both impossible and morally wrong. But I’m going to hope and believe in the compassion of humanity.
“We need to turn the narrative round. Turn it on its head. Somehow the dominant narrative at the moment is that migration is bad, that it shouldn’t be happening and that somehow we can stop it. And those things are just not true.
“Humans have always migrated. Migration isn’t bad; whole countries are built on migration. It brings so much to a country, whether it’s food or culture, etc, etc.
“We should celebrate migration, and also acknowledge that there’re multiple factors forcing people to make these journeys.”
[Taken from episode 11, which you can find here: spoti.fi/2Z1xQxj, here apple.co/3GbXr7s, or here bit.ly/3FZaUPL]
Marie, Mare Liberum
“THIS is fortress Europe, and it’s deeply racist. The politicians; they’d rather migrants drown and die in the Mediterranean than reach Europe.
“I have the impression that [the authorities in Greece and across the continent] will stop at nothing to prevent migrants from coming to Europe. And the absurd situation is that people have the right to seek asylum. But it’s made nearly impossible and there is no legal easy way to seek asylum.
“There are tiny, tiny resettlement programmes where people can go to an embassy and say I want to seek asylum in Europe. But this rarely ever happens. And so people are forced to cross borders illegally and face violence at the borders.
“You can donate money. You can raise awareness of the situation. Get angry, get organised and try to change the situation because what is happening right now at Europe’s external borders is a crime against humanity. And it’s nothing we can accept. So get involved.”
[Taken from episode 4, which you can find here: bit.ly/33ZNPy5, here spoti.fi/3FpWMyg, or here apple.co/3HpSLuz]
Deanna, Alarm Phone
“ON THE one hand, we have to demand that the state does its job, and we ask institutions to intervene. But at the same time, we know that they are doing their job, they are doing what they’re meant to do.
“Their job is to implement and force laws and structures which are violent, which are design to kill, to exploit, to exclude people; this is what states have historically done. So in a way, it’s very naive to ask them to do something different.
“We have to think of alternatives that do not go through the state. And in this way, civil society is the only answer that we can see.
“Our main aim is the abolition of borders, the abolition of ourselves as civil society organisations, and the abolition of all this institutional violence.
“We also need to acknowledge that the problem here is not the violence of borders but borders themselves.
“We cannot create humanitarian borders. The border regime is violent, racist, and is there to protect a white supremacist, capitalist system.”
[Taken from episode 5, which you can find here: bit.ly/3sB9sif, here spoti.fi/3ppkfKz, or here apple.co/32uHf1C]
You can find The Civil Fleet Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Libsyn, and other podcast services.
The top image shows the crew of the Sea-Eye 4 bringing people rescued in the central Mediterranean onto the ship [Pic: Camilla Kranzusch/Sea-Eye]