German Ministers Board Migrant Boat to Understand Plight of Refugees

Around 100 German politicians and journalists crowded into a dinghy on Berlin's river Spree on Tuesday as part of an initiative by a German charity to raise awareness of the precarious conditions on board the vessels used by refugees to cross the Mediterranean. The boat had previously been used by refugees making the perilous journey to Europe.

The event was organised by Sea Watch, a charitable organization created by German entrepreneur Harold Höppner, and an assortment of friends and volunteers from the German state of Brandenburg. The organization rescued more than 2,000 refugees stranded in the Mediterranean Sea between June and September this year.

The exercise coincides with the decision of the German Bundestag last week to approve the deployment of up to 950 soldiers to take part in operation 'Sophia'—the European Union's latest effort against human traffickers, which will allow armed forces to board and seize ships suspected of smuggling people across the Mediterranean.

So far this year, more than 300,000 migrants and refugees have crossed to Europe over the Mediterranean, according to the UN refugee agency. Many of them are fleeing war and persecution in countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Some 2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died or gone missing this year, attempting to make the journey.

A statement on the organisation's website read: "After numerous media reports about our operations in the Mediterranean, we now bring the catastrophic conditions in the form of an original refugee boat in front of the Bundestag on the Spree, to provide an opportunity to experience the precarious situation firsthand."

Ingo Werth, one of Sea Watch's volunteers who drove the boat, says around 25 politicians turned up for the exercise, although he had expected more from Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party. Around 121 people crowded on to the boat in total, and Werth says that overall the event was a success. "The atmosphere of being on the boat with such a lot of people, completely overloaded, is something special. It is never going to like being there as a real refugee or not having food or water. It's different but we wanted to show a boat like this, that people see only on TV screens or in newspapers. We just wanted to show this object of war."

Werth is also sceptical as to whether Operation Sophia will prove effective as he says traffickers are rarely on the boats and dinghies themselves. "The decision of the government is completely wrong. They are trying to pick up traffickers, but on none of the boats in the Mediterranean did we see anybody who showed up as a trafficker, and everyone was in a bad condition.

"It will be bad if the boats are sent back to Libya," he continues. "It will be criminal. When we speak to people on the boats they say the situation in Libya is incredible, there is no law and no order there."

Also on board were several refugees who had made the actual journey across the Mediterranean. Life jackets were provided by Sea Watch, despite many refugees having made the dangerous crossing with none.

"We want to give everyone the opportunity to empathize with what it means to be on board such an unstable boat,", Höppner said to the volunteers, according to the Tagesspiegel newspaper. "Now imagine there are 20 canisters of fuel on board, as well as just a couple of bottles of water, you cannot swim and the water would not be as smooth and quiet as the Spree.".

Those on board said the boat circled the harbour for 10 minutes. During that time volunteers spoke of water seeping into the boat, and choking from the petrol fumes. Others described the experience as "terrifying."

A 30-year-old Ethiopian man was also on the boat. Eighteen months ago, he crossed the Mediterranean on an identical boat from Tripoli, Libya to Italy, together with 111 desperate other people. None of those on board wore life jackets, and after three days a merchant ship rescued them, at which point the water in the boat was up to their knees, the man told Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Not all politicians supported the the event. Social Democrat Gerold Reichenbachn tweeted that the event was "macabre and distasteful."