a wandering woman writes

Sunday, July 23, 2006

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.

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  • Thanks for this story. I am happy that it ended as well as it did. Thanks to those singular human beings, who didn't stop to ask questions, but answered the call of humanity. And at financial cost. Bravo.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:43 PM  

  • Bravo for them... compare their behavior to that of the current US Goverment, and you have a definite study in contrasts.

    Even though they probably could not really afford to take an eight-day break from their fishing, and house and feed the castaways, what else could they do. It is heartening to see someone that is still willing to take a stand for their fellow human beings.

    By Anonymous Adrift At Sea, at 8:04 PM  

  • I wonder, after all the problems and money lost, what will be the orders from the ship's owner next time they see an inmigrant vessel in dispair.

    Anyway, a lovely story with a happy ending that shows how people can be compasive and helpfull with others they don't even know..

    By Blogger Alfacharly, at 8:49 PM  

  • Gert and I have been 'discussing' and trying to define 'left and right' in political and life terms.

    I read the story and said 'this is what I mean ... it's about being human, something most politicians seem to have forgotten somewhere along the way'.

    Democracy ... communism, you can mock the similarities in some instances.

    If only we could be 'human' in decision making ... aye, and a little green piglet just flew past my window.

    Thanks for publishing anyway ... much needed good news.

    By Blogger woman wandering, at 11:38 PM  

  • I was going to congratulate on your translation skills when I see that the stories on the BBC. I've been struggling for days trying to follow what's going on. El Pais did however do a nice simple analysis of the crew. Maybe you can match them up. El Capitan, El Tranquilo, El Joven, El Segundo Jefe, El Familiar y El Veterano.

    By Blogger daniel, at 9:59 AM  

  • Hey now, Daniel. Did you see all those details in the Bbc piece? I take all my news in Spanish - El Pais in print (where I followed this story), 20 minutos, el mundo sometimes online, and Spanish news on TV. I looked for the story in English after I wrote the piece, figuring people who read SPanish had already seen the story.

    I write in English and some of the time I work in English. Outside of that I try to forget I know English. :)

    With books, not sure what you do, but I read writers in their native tongue; if I can't, because they didn't write in English or Spanish, I read them in Spanish.

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 12:08 PM  

  • Forgot to match them up for you, Daniel. These I am sure of (don't have El Pais in front of me,and they used different photos in print)

    First row, second is the veteran, in his 50s, 3rd is the captain

    below, second in command is first, and the 3rd is el joven, the nephew of the captain, who had to fix his car.

    If I remember right the yet unidentified fellow in the top row is El Tranquilo and the bottom is El Familiar - the gallego.

    Keep reading El Pais, btw, especially on Sundays (the magazine?) - the writing is fabulous and you'll learn a lot of vocabulary and style...says me :)

    this site has a lot of good writing, too, snippets of poetic prose, in Spanish: www.epdlp.com (el poder de las palabras)

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 12:19 PM  

  • What a heartwarming story (I'm referring to the fishermen and the immigrants, of course. Not the governments involved).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:52 PM  

  • Human beings, when they simply let themselves be that, are really quite beautiful. Thank you for posting this.

    You know, in America, someone would be pitching the movie rights about now.

    By Blogger Laura Young, at 3:48 PM  

  • It's so said that the people and the stories get lost in the 'issues' of immigration. Thanks for posting this.

    By Blogger Alison, at 3:40 PM  

  • For me reading that was an eerie experience. It's because a very similar thing happened off the coast of Australia about 5 years back. It was known as the Tampa affair (the t
    Tampa was a norwegian vessel.) It didn't exactly have such a happy ending, but it deeply affected our national psyche. nice post.

    Anyway, I have taken the liberty of linking to both this and your top post (found you via global voices and thats what the post is about.)
    I thought i posted something earlier but it's either disappeared or i screwed up. If its the former, and if you'd rather i dodnt link then just leave me a note here, or over at my blog.

    By Anonymous mikey, at 10:56 AM  

  • Hi Mikey,

    No arguments here :) Link, link. Off to read your post now.

    Welcome, and thanks!

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 5:34 PM  

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