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Firefighter Miguel Roldan speaks out – taking on the state to save refugees

This article is over 4 years, 11 months old
Spanish firefighter Miguel Roldan faces up to 20 years in jail for helping to rescue desperate refugees who would otherwise have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. He spoke to Nick Clark about why states are going to war on migrants – and what we can do about it
Issue 2662
Spanish firefighter Miguel Roldan faces jail after helping to save desperate refugees
Spanish firefighter Miguel Roldan faces jail after helping to save desperate refugees

What led you to volunteer to help refugees?

I became a firefighter because I wanted to make a commitment to people. The most satisfying thing I can do is rescue someone in danger.

I volunteered in refugee camps in Lesbos in Greece in 2016, on ships rescuing refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. After the Lesbos route became more restricted due to a deal between the European Union and Turkey, the main route for refugees became across the Mediterranean from Libya.

People that I knew from Lesbos sent me images of what had started to happen en masse in the Mediterranean. If what was happening in Lesbos was dramatic, what was happening on the route from Libya was ten times as bad.

What is happening on the Libyan route is that, quite deliberately and quite literally, European governments are leaving tens of thousands of people to die.

Today they are even denying them the right to humanitarian aid. Not only are rescue ships being hindered and barred, but they are putting military vessels on the Mediterranean with the deliberate objective of returning refugees to Libya.

They know that Libya is not a safe place to return them to—yet they return them. There are witness statements and records of people that say they would rather die than go back to Libya.

We are in a society of eyes that refuse to see and hearts that refuse to love. If there weren’t NGOs and rescue ships trying to help these people and giving testimony, no one would know a thing about it.

When you went to help, did you know that you risked being arrested and going to prison?

When you make the decision to join a rescue ship you set aside any thought of the risk that you are running.

But I want to make it clear that in every situation we were in, we always followed international law and the rules of the sea—respected the norms. We never did anything that was illegal under any law.

We have to await permission to rescue someone. We’ve followed the rules to the extent that we’ve had to sit and watch people die.

If governments know what people face in Libya, why do they still send people back there?

In my opinion, the only thing that capitalist society and capitalist governments care about is money and profit, to the exclusion of any consideration of human beings.

When money comes before humanity, it’s not possible to argue reasonably against that logic.

The FBU union held a solidarity protest with Miguel in London earlier this year

The FBU union held a solidarity protest with Miguel in London earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Rich countries are ripping off the poor countries for their natural resources. They create a world that produces wars and famine, which kill millions. And when they’ve done this—deprived people of their means to live—they take away even the possibility of rescuing them when they flee.

We steal from them and impoverish them then leave them to die when they try to get to Europe. When they try to escape their situation, we sentence them to death.

I always say that sooner or later, there’s going to be a payback for everything that we’re doing.

When you look at historical moments such as the period of the Nazis, people scratch their heads and wonder how that was allowed to happen. I think in the future people will look back and ask how we allowed what’s happening in the Mediterranean now.

But there are also people like you who want to help refugees. Have you had much support?

I do feel supported—I’ve had a lot of support for the situation I’m in. But I think the problem is that the people who support me are in a minority.

But people can get activated and motivated to change. And that’s my hope.

What can people who want to help refugees do to change the situation?

We’ve got to put out an alternative vision of what’s possible. In a spirit of dialogue, we have to put out a vision of a different world.

We’ve got to change the way that people think, but in a way that respects where people are coming from. We have to convince people that there’s a different perspective available.

And what can we do about the governments that are trying to push refugees back into Libya?

I’d like to take the Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini with me on a rescue ship for 24 hours just to see the real situation—the consequences of his policies. I’m convinced he’d change his mind.

We’ve got to act now. This is not about long term, short term or medium term plans. We’re in a situation where action has got to be taken—now this minute—to change this world from the way that it is.

The grim racist reality of Fortress Europe

The horrors Miguel has witnessed—and the jail threat he faces—are the grim face of a racist policy central to the European Union (EU).

For more than 20 years, EU border laws have shut out migrants from Europe—and led to the drowning of tens of thousands of refugees.

The flipside of the Schengen Agreement—the deal that opened borders between European countries—was Fortress Europe. A system of border controls, policing and physical barriers created a hostile environment designed to stop migrants from outside Europe from getting in.

The result is that refugees fleeing war, poverty, violence and climate catastrophe have been forced to attempt dangerous sea crossings on dinghies and overcrowded boats.

The EU’s response was to implement ever more brutal ways of “toughening” up its borders. The climate of anti-migrant racism EU politicians encouraged to justify these spurred the growth of far right, racist parties that take the scapegoating even further.

And as that vicious circle of racism spirals out of control, the people caught in the centre of it die in their thousands every year.

The number of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea rose drastically after the launch of one EU border policy in 2014.

Operation Triton—run by EU border force Frontex—was sold as by some politicians as a search and rescue mission. Its real mission was “border control and surveillance”. The idea was to try and push back migrants, many of them refugees fleeing civil wars in Syria and Libya.

Nevertheless, just under one million refugees entered Europe in 2015, the following year. So the EU signed a deal with Turkey that said refugees arriving by sea to Greek islands would be locked up, then sent back.

That deal was signed in 2016—the year the crisis reached its most dreadful peak. The United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR said as many as 5,096 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean that year.

The EU’s response was to give Frontex more powers—and more weapons. After Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri called for detention camps and thousands more border guards, the EU paid for new “reception centres” at migration “hotspots”. Refugees were taken there, fingerprinted, then deported or left to languish.

More recently the EU has agreed to increase the number of Frontex border guards from 1,500 to 10,000 by 2027. It has also given them more powers to carry and use guns.

Matteo Salvini and the war on migrants

Italy was always at the forefront of the European Union’s war on refugees. But the Italian elections last year ended with Matteo Salvini—leader of the far right Lega party—in charge of immigration as Italy’s interior minister.

Since then Italian ports have denied entry to refugee rescue ships, often leaving them stranded at sea.

On one ship—the Aquarius—some 629 refugees were locked out when Italy denied it permission to dock last year.

Salvini has also overseen mass evictions from refugee camps. Hundreds of refugees have been kicked out of camps and left on the streets.

Bombs, slavery and torture – life in Libyan prison camps

An European Union (EU) racist border policy is responsible for the existence of 21st century slavery and torture in Libya. And on top of that refugees now face bombing too.

At least 44 refugees were killed in an air raid on a migrant prison camp in Libya last week, and more than 130 were severely injured. Most were migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Europe.

Refugee prison camps—the face of a deal between the EU and the Libyan coastguard—hold thousands of people who have tried to reach Europe.

Many have been forced to attempt travel through Libya because the EU border force has shut off shorter or safer routes.

Footage released by Channel 4 news this year showed people in the camps being whipped, beaten and tortured with molten plastic while guns were held to their heads.

Refugees who have been caught or are trying to evade the border police are forced into the arms of people traffickers and slave traders.

Footage released in 2017 showed black men being sold at auction in Libya for the equivalent of a few hundred pounds.




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