An approaching thunderstorm increases danger for a flimsy white rubber boat. The overcrowded vessel carries dozens of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to reach Europe. The boat’s occupants would rather die than return to Libya.
Crossing from Libya to Europe is dangerous business. Nearly 23,000 people have died or gone missing making the attempt since 2014. But for many migrants, staying in the country is even more dangerous.
From above, a plane monitors the boat’s journey. A German non-governmental organization called Sea-Watch owns the plane. Its volunteers help document human rights violations committed against migrants at sea. Further, the group relays distress cases to nearby ships and to authorities.
“This is aircraft Seabird,” calls the plane’s tactical coordinator, Eike Bretschneider, via radio. The captain of the only nearby ship agrees to change course and check on the flimsy craft. But seeing a Libyan flag on the ship, the rubber boat’s occupants refuse assistance.
Bretschneider reckons the migrants have 15 more hours before reaching an island off the Sicilian coast—if their boat doesn’t split or capsize first.
Bretschneider sends the boat’s coordinates to someone in Berlin, who relays the position to Malta and Italy. Predictably, there’s no response: European countries increasingly ignore international obligations to rescue migrants at sea. Seabird has authority only to remind captains of their duty to rescue persons in distress.
It’s illegal for European vessels to take rescued migrants back to Libya. However, they often leave rescues to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has ties to human traffickers and militias.
So far this year, the Libyan Coast Guard has intercepted roughly half of those attempting to leave—taking more than 26,000 men, women, and children back to the very place they fled.
Sea-Watch relies on the kindness of close-at-hand merchant vessels. But many are reluctant to get involved. Some ships have found themselves stuck at sea for days waiting for Italy or Malta’s permission to disembark rescued migrants.
The white boat has a happy ending. The Italian Coast Guard found the vessel. Its passengers made it safely to land.
Not every tale ends well. Global refugee policies are complex political and humanitarian concerns. They won’t be solved quickly. But for Christians, the rubber boat’s refugees force a decision as old as Cain and Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) It is clear from the whole of scripture that we are, for “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Does that include the fellow image bearer adrift on life’s pitiless sea?
Why? As fellow humans made in the image of God, each of us has a responsibility to offer care for others when God places them in our path.
Pray: For hearts of compassion and obedience; for refugees and migrants around the world; for an end to the violence that forces many into poverty and peril and out of their homelands.