UNESCO has named Giuseppina Nicolini, a former Mayor of Lampedusa (Italy) and the non-governmental organisation SOS Méditerranée (France) as the winners of Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize 2017 “for their work to save the lives of refugees and migrants and welcome them with dignity”.
“We’re very happy to be given this award together with Giusi Nicolini,” said Sophie Beau, co-founder and vice-president of SOS Méditerranée, as she received the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Prize. “We visited her in Lampedusa when we founded our association in 2015, to explain our project to start rescue activities with a ship chartered by European citizens. She declared to Klaus Vogel, our co-founder: ‘You are crazy, but I’m with you.’”
“We can’t just look on and do nothing as thousands of people drown in the sea right in front of us, at the gates to Europe,” Beau exclaims. This was the conclusion that led Vogel, a German merchant captain, and Beau, a humanitarian programme specialist, to set up SOS Méditerranée, a European non-governmental organization (NGO) for high-sea rescue.
The NGO’s field of action is the Mediterranean, which thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing war and famine try to cross to reach the shores of Europe, risking their lives in the attempt. At least 46,000 people have died at sea in the past fifteen years.
The NGO is founded on the traditional values of mutual aid between seafarers, and works in close collaboration with the Italian authorities – the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre of Rome.
The nerve centre of the initiative is Aquarius, a 77-metre ship, operated by a crew of eleven, with a medical team from Médecins sans Frontières and a rescue team from SOS Méditerranée. In total, thirty people are always ready to cope with a capacity of 500 passengers, sometimes more.
In fifteen months of operations off the coast of Libya (from February 2016 to May 2017), the association has rescued over 19,000 people. Most of the survivors come from sub-Saharan Africa, especially West Africa and the Horn of Africa, but also from Bangladesh, Syria, Libya, Pakistan and Palestine.
Read our interview with Giuseppina Nicolini
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