The fishermen and the immigrants
The six gorgeous human faces you see above belong to the crew of the Spanish trawler Francisco y Catalina.
They are shrimp fishermen. For years, most of them have spent more time on the water than they have at home with their families. One crew member is 21. He signed on for a year, just enough time to earn the cash to repair his car.
On Friday, June 14, those faces spotted an open, broken-down boat full of immigrants in the middle of the Mediterranean. 51 people, mostly Eritreans and Moroccans, sat baking, shelterless, in the sun, while their engineless boat drifted out to sea. Among the exhausted crowd packed onto the boat, the fishermen spied a 2 year girl and 2 visibly pregnant women.
For hours, the fishermen called authorities, pleading for someone to pick up the immigrants. Pleading for someone to tell them what to do.
No one did either. Two Maltese fishing vessels approached only to rapidly motor away.
Eventually, having failed to find any help, anywhere, the Spanish fishermen took a vote. A unanimous vote. They'd snatch this boatful of dehydrated, doomed immigrants from the sea and face the consequences.
They made for the closest port, a town in Malta, with their unexpected catch. Twenty miles offshore, a Maltese patrol boat ordered the Francisco y Catalina to stop. Access to the port was denied.
I'll condense the next chapter into one mind blowing sentence: When Malta refused to allow the fishermen to drop off the immigrants in Malta, claiming they were picked up in Libyan waters, and regardless, were now standing on Spanish ground (the boat), Spain, the EU and a handful of Mediterranean countries began what El País aptly named "The Auction of Immigrants".
For eight days, the fishermen lay at anchor 20 miles off Malta, feeding their guests, getting to know them as best they could in a strange exchange of Gallego, Valenciana, and what little English they could piece together. They cranked up the DVD players they use to pass long hours at sea and played The Little Mermaid in English for the 2 year old. They lost heart when she wouldn't eat and offered her every food on the boat till she took something. They covered the part of the boat where the immigrants waited in the heat with a tarp.
Water and food were brought out from shore. The boat's cook adjusted to cooking for 60. After a few days, when one of the crew members went to clean the bathroom they'd set aside for the immigrants, the immigrants stopped him, and cleaned it themselves.
On Tuesday, the 2 year old, her mother, and the most seriously ill immigrant were allowed to be airlifted to Malta for medical treatment.
Meanwhile, Europe argued over who would take the immigrants. Italy offered to take 10 if Spain would take 40 Moroccans already in Italy. Libya agreed to take 10, then reneged. More than once, the fishermen followed the order to hoist the anchor and start the engines, only to be told negotiations had broken down. They would not be allowed to enter the Maltese port after all.
In the end, Spain flew more than half of the shipwrecked Africans to Madrid, where the Red Cross and a Catholic relief agency will house and feed them while they apply for asylum. Malta accepted 5, Andorra 5 and Italy 12.
The fishermen lost their catch and 8 days of fishing.
Early in the week the boat's captain, José Dura, asked a journalist what would happen the next time a working fishing boat ran across a boatful of immigrants drifting off to sea and certain death. Would the fishing boat stop to save them, knowing the consequences?
"What were we supposed to do?", he asked in an interview. "Let them drown?"
I know immigration is a tough issue and I know that small island nations and small island provinces, like Spain's Canary Islands, don't have the resources to house the thousands who wash ashore every year.
Still, today, I'm proud of my adopted home, as I watch her burst in pride at this story of 10 fishermen. Spain can't handle more illegal immigrants, either, but she took them.
Two crew members did the boat's grocery shopping in Malta this weekend, and the Francisco y Catalina headed back to sea, to pick up where she left off: fishing for shrimp.
Somehow all the news I read today left me with the same feeling: if only more governments could look beyond their difficulties and their principles enough to see the 2 year olds behind them. And the pregnant women. And, in the words of one of our fishermen, "the brave men".
Said José Dura, interviewed as the immigrants hugged him, thanked him for saving their lives and headed for the buses that would take them to a pair of Spanish planes:
"We'd do it again."
Today, here's to people for whom a human being is always a human being.