A heartbreaking letter to the Norwegian Minister of Justice and Immigration
This letter comes from a post, originally in Norwegian, which has been viewed over one million times in a few days on “Budbringeren fra Helvetet” – (Messenger from Hell)
It was posted after the Norwegian Minister of Justice and Immigration, Jøran Kallmyr, warned NGO’s about rescuing people in the Mediterranean. “If we rescue them, more will come” he stated. The general idea is the same as Matteo Salvini, stop helping, and the flow of people will eventually stop.
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Dear Jøran Kallmyr (Justice Minister of Norway)
I can tell you how dead children smell, but I do not wish for you to fall asleep with that smell in your nostrils every night. I can also tell you that a dead child hardly weighs anything. A fake lifejacket with a lifeless child, arms and legs hanging down the side like a rag doll filled with water, hardly weighs anything.
Compared to an adult of course. A lifeless grown man with wet clothes and a backpack containing his last belongings attached to his stomach, and wet shoes, with fingers locked in a claw-like position of death cramps while desperately holding on to a five-year-old who is no longer there – is incredibly heavy.
But the kids – easy. You only need one available arm to lift a dead child out of the water. An arm and huge amounts of strength.
Every time I try to describe the smell of dead children, I start feeling unwell. In a heartbeat I am back there, on the beach, or at open sea, soaking wet and freezing cold, covered in another person’s vomit and faeces, and with my hands and face smeared with oil and gasoline and seawater.
Some of them are distorted, like silent screams, some have rotted and look like they belong among the ocean’s sea monsters, some are beautiful, calm, glass-like, do not even look dead, just look as if they are sleeping. These are always the hardest to lift on to the shore.
Those who look as if they are asleep, look so incredibly alive.
But the smell of anxiety mixed with death and wet rubber cannot be described. So maybe I cannot describe the smell of dead children to you, because when I try, the smell of methane and ammonia never really leaves me.
Instead, let me start by putting the technical side of things into words. Those who have drowned always look a little different from each other, depending on how long they have been in the water, on the sea temperature and how deep the body sank before it was inflated to three times its own size and came back up to the surface.
In some cases, the respiratory passage closes as soon as the mouth is filled with seawater and a convulsion in the pharynx causes the epiglottis to close the trachea and only small amounts of water enter the lungs.
Some gasp for air and swallow lots of water in uncontrollable panic before the body gives up fighting.
It is the soft tissue on the outside of the body that gets eaten first. Fish go straight for the eyes. Many of the drowned lose their eyes within the first couple of hours.
But it is the water in the lungs that causes the human body to sink. The body’s own bacteria produce gases that cause the body to float back on to the surface. It is especially the abdominal area that gets inflated, some corpses look as if they have a pot-belly. The body can contain so much gas that it floats like a balloon.
Most of the time, dead bodies float face down. Arms, legs and head are heavy and give the body a curved appearance. Some get stuck in debris or plants at the bottom of the sea and never make it back to the surface. In the course of a month, a body stuck at the bottom of the sea can be eaten up by animals.
Bodies that reappear at the surface, are often slimy. They slide out of our hands and disintegrate, and the smell – the smell can never be washed away, not entirely.
In September 2015, the three year old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi became the symbol of the boat refugees. Both Alan’s five-year old brother and their mother drowned together with Alan that day.
All over the world people cried over Alan Kurdi, but since that day over 20.000 more people have drowned and most children who wash up on Europe’s beaches or who lie at the bottom of the sea do not resemble the sleeping little boy.
The vast majority of children that get picked out of the water look like something you cannot imagine in your worst nightmares.
In the small seaport of Vatera on Lesbos island, on March 10th this year, a headless body washed up on the beach. It belonged to nine-year old Roya. She had fallen out of a boat between Turkey and Lesbos a month earlier, while her family, desperate and helpless, stayed behind in a sinking dinghy only just reaching the shore. They couldn’t save little Roya from the waves.
Roya’s head was probably removed from her body by the boat’s propeller, or maybe the waves threw her body so hard onto the sharp cliffs around the coast that the little body no longer managed to stay in one piece, not even in the sea, where most of us float so easily and lightly in the summer. Roya’s head was never found.
This is not unusual, did you know that, Jøran Kallmyr? That a child loses a limb – a leg, an arm – or a head. The body parts are so fragile, and loosely attached to the tiny bodies… all it takes is five strong waves against the rocks at a tourist beach, and the little body is no longer recognizable.
The living Roya was a beautiful, playful little Afghan girl with a shy expression and a bright red scarf. The dead girl, a month later… well, as I wrote, most of the children we pick out of the water look like something you cannot imagine in your worst nightmares.
That’s why I need to ask you time and time again: how far away must a drowning child be before you as a human stop caring?
Two hundred metres?
Or do you stop caring when the drowning child is two thousand kilometres away?
I am asking because almost every day children are still drowning in the Mediterranean and it doesn’t look like you, as a person, care at all.
65 years ago, in the years following World War II, the UN Refugee Convention entered into force. This legal document was meant to protect all refugees, regardless of when or where they were fleeing. More than half a century later, it doesn’t look like this convention is functioning as intended.
Last Summer was the deadliest summer in the Mediterranean in many years. In June and July a total of 1363 people were confirmed drowned.
At the same time, all Mediterranean rescue ships were blocked in different ports around Southern Europe, even though each of them was ready to carry out search and rescue missions with volunteers, interpreters and doctors on board throughout the summer.
I was regularly on board both the Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch and Lifeline ships during the summer of 2018. Most of the time, the rescue crews knew exactly where the boats with people drowning were located.
The EU has systematically tried to stop everyone trying to rescue refugees at sea. By not allowing the rescue ships to enter or leave any harbours in Southern Europe, a maritime border has been created which is meant to stop any refugees from coming into our part of the world. In addition, volunteers and captains working on the rescue ships are being sued for people smuggling.
In 2007, 53 people drowned just outside my other homeland, Malta. Those of us who were there picked burnt bodies and people filled with oil spill out of the water. In the course of 2009, almost 1000 people drowned in the same area, and in the next two years thousands more.
Do you know that the sound of 300 people drowning at the same time sounds exactly like the squawk of seagulls on a warm summer day just outside Drøbak?
I know this, because I travel back and forth between my two home towns by the sea, Drøbak in Norway and Marsaskala in Malta. And the sound, the sound is exactly the same.
While volunteers from Malta and Italy lifted hundreds of dead children out of the water in 2013, most Norwegians went happily about their business, not knowing anything about the smell of dead children.
Slowly but surely, the Mediterranean is turning into a mass grave, and the small, beautiful limestone islands of Malta and Lampedusa are being turned into small tombstones.
In one year, from October 2013-2014, Italy alone saved 150 000 people from drowning. Not a single European country was interested in helping.
Only when it became clear that Italy alone couldn’t continue to afford the rescue operation Mare Nostrum, the EU replaced it with Operation Triton, and only then did Norway agree to send rescue ships, because Triton was first and foremost a border protection operation, and not a rescue operation.
Our ships would only pick up those who called for help in European waters, and not enter Libyan waters to look for people in distress, as the volunteer ships do now.
When Norway and other European countries started to help out in the Mediterranean, replacing the Italian Mare Nostrum Operation, the numbers of people who drowned increased with 1600% and Europe experienced intense criticism from Amnesty International:
“What we witnessed today in Brussels was a face-saving not a life-saving operation. All the words and resources being thrown at this problem suggest that EU leaders are being serious about saving lives at sea. But the reality is they are still only meeting the problem halfway. Unless they go the extra mile, migrants and refugees will continue to drown and Europe will have again failed shamefully – to deal with this tragedy on its doorstep. If Triton can’t be changed, then Triton is not the solution, however many resources one gives it. A planned tripling of finances towards Triton will not address the reality of the search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean unless the operational area is extended to the high seas where most of the deaths occur.” (Amnesty International, April 23rd 2015)
I don’t think the official EU operations qualify to be called successful, Jøran, so maybe we can let the NGOs who know what to do, continue with this horrendous job without you criticising them?
In the little fishing port on Lampedusa, you will find the old fisherman Carlos. He has stopped eating tuna a long time ago and lately, on his boat, he has had more dead than living passengers. He cannot bring himself to go fishing any longer and is instead sitting on a blue wooden chair, looking out on the ocean for people in distress.
Outside the Tunisian coast, you will find Makhton in a fishing boat along with his son, only lately they have been fishing more corpses than fish and every day he has to tell his wife that this week they again won’t have enough to eat – they are people who have always survived on selling fish.
On the island of Lesbos, you will find a female aid worker so traumatised that she hasn’t dipped her toes into the shiny Aegean Sea since picking up thousands of people from the beach in 2015.
Myself, I have stopped diving, and when I go swimming in the Mediterranean, I have to stand on my boyfriend’s feet.
Once I was one of Malta’s most active young water polo players, today I cannot go for a swim in the Mediterranean without looking for boats or body parts. Maybe that is understandable after having seen human bodies wash up on the shore for almost twenty years.
Over the course of the last couple of decades, 40 000 people have been confirmed drowned, while fleeing across the Mediterranean. How many people actually lie at the bottom of the sea, we will never know. The number might be 10 times as high.
Right now, there are no organisations in or around the Mediterranean who document how many boats actually sink, but so far this year, the International Organisation for Migration states that the probability of people drowning while fleeing across the central part of the Mediterranean, is three times higher than last year.
In other words, it has never been more dangerous to try and cross the Mediterranean Sea than it is today. And there isn’t a shred of evidence for the claim that the volunteer search and rescue ships constitute a so-called pull factor, leading to more people attempting to cross, be it from Libya, Morocco or Turkey. The NGO ships have hardly been out at sea at all, this year – it just seems that way lately because of the increased attention in the (social) media.
People who have been hiding in Turkey’s forests for four months waiting for a smuggler, or children locked up in torture camps in Libya couldn’t care less whether the small ships like Sea-Eye or Lifeline are out at sea or confiscated in one of southern Europe’s harbours. They start the crossing when it is their time, when the smugglers kick and push them into the fragile rubber or wooden boats and shoot the ones who are not boarding – having paid more than we pay for a cruise in the Caribbean.
Jøran, I am sure you understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water seems the safest option – they board these unstable, rickety dinghies because the thought of a European refugee camp, or spending winter upon winter in a tent, seem better than your children being bombed to pieces by the Taliban on the way to school; because an angry policeman on the Macedonian border is a better option than fourteen men between your legs, every day; because male refugees from the Congo have often been raped so many times that we in Lesbos are short of adult diapers for those men.
They get into that boat because 12-year-olds who make it to shore on Lampedusa have been so abused that they can hardly walk anymore, and 15-year-old girls are pregnant, having been raped by more men than they can count. Women on the run burn off their fingertips in the Greek tent camps. They are so afraid to be returned to Turkey and the hell they have escaped from that they prefer to risk living the rest of their lives without fingerprints and with burnt fingers.
Some of those who make it to the Greek islands have tried to cross 11 times before they finally succeed. Because of the EU-Turkey deal, the Turkish coast guard now stops about half of the boats every night. The same is happening on the Libyan side.
None of these people just boards one of these boats for a light and easy crossing. That is not how it works. This is why so few people make it.
Our sea fence is working, but it doesn’t mean that fewer people die. They just die elsewhere.
On Lesbos, there are young Afghan men who speak Norwegian fluently because they spent years in Norway, before you guys deported them back to Kabul, from where they have fled again. Last time I was in Moria camp, I played UNO in Norwegian, with a child who Norway seems to think can back to Kabul and die alone. I am glad he managed, at the 7th time of trying, to get into a rubber dinghy that didn’t sink and ended up on Lesbos.
As you probably know, Jøran, my friends from Watch The Med Alarmphone and Aegean Boat Report get desperate emergency calls every night from people about to drown – and every time they try to get them help.
Who do you think should save these people?
The Libyan coast guard do not answer emergency calls, and Libya is not a safe place anyway; the Italian coast guard do not want to pick up more than the bare minimum so that they don’t lose face; the Maltese coast guard are understaffed and exhausted, and the island of Malta has already welcomed so many refugees… after 20 years alone in the frontline without EU support.
Who do you think should pick up these people – people who will be there regardless – if not the volunteers? Who will save the drowning children, who will remove the dead foetuses, hanging out of the women, who will register all those who end up on the ocean floor?
On the Greek island of Lesbos, high up on a mountain near the castle town of Molyvos, there is a pile of 300.000 life jackets. Each and every one of them tells a story of a person who has made the decision that the sea was safer than the land – but the most conspicuous thing about these jackets, is that 90% of them are fake. Filled with styrofoam, cardboard or newspapers, they provide a false sense of safety to those who embark on their journey, but soon they turn into a death trap.
As you probably know as well, the mass produced RIBs (rigid-inflatable boats) are also fake. A RIB should actually be one of the safest boats possible, unsinkable, but the dinghies the refugees cross in have been made out of cheap and thin rubber, without air tubes and with only a cardboard bottom. They are produced for one-time-use, as are their super light outboard engines, usually with the text “Yamaha” written backwards.
It often looks like the only passengers in these dinghies are men, but as you probably know, Jøran, the women often sit in the middle of the boat, protected by the men around them. And when they get transferred to a rescue vessel, the women and children often get a place under deck, while it is typically the men who stay on deck, whether in the burning sun or in a storm.
Since you are clearly informed enough to make a statement, I suppose you follow the pages “Aegan Boat Report” and “Budbringeren fra Helvete” (Messenger from Hell) on Facebook, and that you therefore know that half of the arrivals now are women and children. In the latest sea rescue by Sea-Eye, whose passengers were allowed to enter Malta, 39 of the 65 on board were children.
Malta has offered to be a safe haven if Europe is willing to reallocate the people Malta allows into the country. My tiny little homeland, Europe’s smallest and most densely populated, does what Norway won’t even consider. The cemeteries on Malta, Lampedusa and Lesbos are packed.
Even if we can try to hide behind the claim that we didn’t know thousands of people were drowning in the Mediterranean ten years ago, we can never say we don’t know it is happening right now. I once lifted a young woman out of a wooden dinghy. She was dead and the stillborn foetus was still attached to her by the umbilical cord. Two human lives were lost at once, when the fear she must have experienced on the boat started a birth no one could help her with.
You should be incredibly grateful that some people take this job upon themselves. You should thank them and show some humility because that way you don’t have to sleep with pictures of what they have seen in your own head. You should send warm thoughts to my diver friends who set out, each night, in the dark, and bring children up from the bottom of the sea, children no country wants.
What we have seen does not resemble anything you can imagine in your worst nightmares. Most drowned children do not look like they are asleep.
Dear Jøran, as far as I can remember, your political party, pretty much since day one, has promoted private initiative. So why doesn’t your party support these private initiatives?
Is it out of fear of being seen showing some humanity for people who are fleeing from absolutely everything?
At the time of writing this, not a single search and rescue ship is present in the Mediterranean.
Once again, the ships have been confiscated and the captains charged. But that doesn’t mean that fewer people will attempt to cross the sea. A few days ago, 58 people washed up on the shore in Tunisia, after 80 people went missing in one shipwreck. We cannot accept this.
You can and should use your influence to put pressure on the decisionmakers. As long as we cannot manage to fix the root of the problem and make sure that people no longer need to flee from hell, all we can do is praise those who help them where they are. Especially if they do so out on the open sea, at night, in a storm, risking their own lives.
We can never get back the children who are lying at the bottom of the sea. But we must stop committing humanitarian crimes and injustices that our children will need to apologise for in 50 years’ time.
Publisher and volunteer
Also known as Budbringeren fra Helvete (Messenger from Hell)
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