Volunteers take to the waves to aid stranded migrants

As EU leaders and European governments struggle to find a solution to the tide of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in Europe, a group of German volunteers have decided to take matters into their own hands by setting sail to offer assistance to those they find stranded at sea.

The group, called Sea Watch, was created by German entrepreneur Harold Hoeppner and an assortment of friends and volunteers from Brandenburg. It launched its first mission last week, setting off from the Italian island of Lampedusa on the Saturday evening, and nearing the Libyan Coast on Sunday morning, before returning to Lampedusa on the Monday of last week.

According to the European border agency Frontex, 47,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, with around 20,000 of those arriving in May alone. An estimated 1,800 have died attempting to make the crossing.

On launching, the boat, staffed by a crew of eight volunteers, almost immediately received an emergency call from Watch the Med, which operates an alarm phone that supports rescue operations and was set up as part of the Boats4People NGO, about a vessel in distress. They then sailed to the area and alerted the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) who sent two larger merchant ships which picked up around 150 migrants.

According to Ingo Werth, who is responsible for managing the ship's supplies, the group acts as the "emergency telephone on the Mediterranean", working alongside other rescue groups to locate migrant boats in distress before contacting larger ships in the area who pick up the migrants. Sea Watch does not pick them up itself, but provides water, food and medical assistance.

In a case where a boat was sinking, the modest GO-46 Sea Watch vessel, funded entirely by the founders and which only sleeps eight, would take passengers on board, says Werth. There are 350 lifejackets and 100 life rings on board.

"If the people are in the water, we have to take them on board, but it's not our first aim, as long as their ship is seaworthy. We want to keep the people on their boat unless it sinks, because it is the safest place for them," he says. As a result the Sea Watch boat tends to keep a distance of about a mile and a half, although a rigid-inflatable boat with a doctor on board can be sent over to assist. Sea Watch also offers its doctors to the bigger ships in the area, which have the capacity to pick up migrants, but often little else.

The conditions the migrants face are tough, say activists. "Usually there is no possibility to move [on their boats] and not enough water, and if they have run out of gas, it's possible they stay on the boat for three or four days," Werth says. "It's pretty hot out there so they get dehydrated, so the most important thing is to give them fluids. If they are not lucky, they have to wait another six hours to be picked up".

Another private initiative operating on a far larger scale is the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), which was set up last year by an Italian-American couple based in Malta, and relies on voluntary donations. Their boat headed out late last week and will sometimes stay at sea for three weeks at a time, looking for migrants. Earlier this month, they rescued 297 migrants from a single boat, 91 of whom were women and children, according to director Martin Xuereb. They were dropped off at Sicily.

"Obviously everyone was jam-packed in this boat, and a considerable number were in the hold," says Xuereb. "As we were assisting them the weather picked up and the boat started to take on water. They had a pump, and they were pumping out water, and were bailing out water with buckets".

The activists say their work is proof that ordinary people can contribute to this crisis, and Sea Watch will continue its efforts until October. "We made a decision not to talk any longer, not to see any more people die," says Werth. "The EU could do much more, and we have to help people escaping war zones. Ordinary people can do a lot at home, but the first step is to help people survive in the sea."

According to Ewa Moncure, a press officer at the EU border agency Frontex, there have been no complaints from the Italian coastguard about the work of either private operation, but says "saving people's lives is the most important thing. In the event of a boat in distress, any boat, whether Frontex, or even fishing and pleasure boats, can be directed to the area by the coastguard."