On 4 March 2020, the Heinrich Boell Foundation's Brussels office presented the documentary film "Mission Lifeline" to an international audience. Zora Siebert talked to Markus Weinberg about his documentary and current developments in European refugee policy.
Zora Siebert: For your film Mission Lifeline, you accompanied the Dresden-based organisation Mission Lifeline, which saves people in distress at sea, for two years with the camera. Why did you decide to do this?
Markus Weinberg: The topic more or less fell into my lap. I was working for "Dresdner Morgenpost" at the time and had already written a few articles on the Dresden Balkans convoy. That initiative called for donations of relief supplies for people on the Balkans route. I was sent there by my editor to write an article about the willingness of the people of Dresden to help.
In the process, I got to know Axel Steier as the spokesperson of the initiative. The campaign was so successful that about 25 convoys with relief supplies went to the Balkans in the end. We received regular updates and reports on the initiative. At some point, Axel Steier came back from Greece and told us that refugees had capsized and drowned with their boats right off the coast. Anyone who has ever been to the coast and stood on a cliff can imagine how difficult it is to help someone who is about to sink without putting yourself in danger. Motivated by the utter horror of the situation, Steier came back and said: "we have to send a boat to the Mediterranean Sea. We'll form an association, we'll buy a ship and in three months we'll be sailing".
Steier is not someone who speaks in terms of "could", but of "we will". I said to him: "If you do that, I'd like to document it". At this time, I was already working for MDR television and made my own short documentaries. I pitched to Steier and suggested involving a production company to approach it professionally. Lifeline then decided that they would let us in.
It's always one of those things you have to balance, on the one hand your desire to make a documentary, and on the other hand what's in it for the people who are to be documented. They have to agree. After all, back then I worked for a tabloid newspaper, which is not necessarily the favourite newspaper of the activists around Axel Steier.
Zora Siebert: I can imagine. Did it work out within the three months Steier was aiming for?
Markus Weinberg: In the end, it took a bit longer. That is also a big part of the story in the film and the reason the film got the name Mission Lifeline. It wasn't easy to buy a boat and take off to the Mediterranean. It took a year and a half to get the money together, but also to find a suitable boat. It's not how they'd imagined it at all.
At the time, there were also some legal actions by Mission Lifeline against Pegida. There was, for example, cease-and-desist declarations, and an action against hate speech on social media. There were a couple of disputes which we also documented. As a journalist, I went to many Pegida demonstrations and other demonstrations in Saxony, where it came to a head, in Plauen, Tröglitz, Bautzen and Connewitz.
During the speeches at the demonstrations, there was always some slander against Lifeline. These two stories could not be separated from each other. That's how the topic came to me. I didn't say to myself, "I'm going to do something about Pegida, because it's interesting for Dresden." The stories of Lifeline and Pegida are interlinked. In the beginning, Lifeline also became very well known, especially because Pegida was slandering the association and we journalists were reporting it.
Movie poster "Mission Lifeline", ravir Film GbR, all rights reserved.
Zora Siebert: You have already made a good transition here. Your documentary is unique: it is about flight and sea rescue, but the film is not just about the suffering and personal stories of the refugees. Above all, it is about how sea rescue is organised. Your perspective is focused on the crew. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Markus Weinberg: Perhaps a brief comment on my background: I studied political science and therefore it was important to me to place the topic of sea rescue in a social context, and to discuss the political background against which it all takes place.
Other films have been made on this topic – during the filming of “Mission Lifeline”, the film IUVENTA about JUGEND RETTET was released. Then there was Markus Imhoof’s ELDORADO, and the fictional film STYX, which won a prize at the Berlinale International Film Festival. In 2019, the short film LIFEBOAT by Skye Fitzgerald was nominated for the Oscars. There were already other films. Our film is different because it addresses a local and international topic. That was a first.
Sea rescue organisations, but also television have already published many reports and articles in which a journalist is involved. The rescue was effectively "copied", because everybody already knows the story. We didn’t want to tell it again. The sea rescue organisations themselves disseminate these pictures to draw attention to their important work. To document just the rescue would have meant too much of the experience and challenges not being documented in our film.
Zora Siebert: The film shows the political climate in Dresden. People in distress at sea are often the target of attacks from the right-wing spectrum. Why was it important to you to show scenes from Pegida demonstrations in Dresden in addition to the story of Lifeline in the film?
Markus Weinberg: I didn't want to show a film that says "they are like this and they are like that”. I intentionally wanted to keep it open and I didn't try to discredit Pegida or give a bad impression of them. I captured reality as it is on the streets, or at least what it looks like from my perspective. Nobody has ever criticised me for making others look like a fool – no matter which side they are on. "Mission Lifeline" is a film that invites discussion.
Zora Siebert: When you listen to what is said at the demonstrations, Pegida doesn’t need any help discrediting itself.
Markus Weinberg: It was important for us to include two or three significant interactions. "Mission Lifeline" does not show the typical "bulldog Nazis" you remember from the ‘90s, but the friendly old lady from next door with the extreme world view. You meet her on the street and think she's a middle-class grandmother who goes to the playground with her grandchildren. And then she opens her mouth and things are coming out that you can't even imagine and that you would never expect of her.
Zora Siebert: I would like to come back to the widespread criticism: the right wing repeatedly accuses sea rescue workers of being illegal human traffickers or supporting those networks. What’s your assessment of this?
Markus Weinberg: We have also met human traffickers. With my cameraman, I was on the first Lifeline mission in September 2017 and then came Day X, September 26 or 27, when the first boat was spotted early in the morning. There were several dots on the radar. Sara, Lifeline’s dinghy, went to it and at the same time, another speedboat set off for the Libyan coast.
We found out later that the traffickers had robbed the people on the high sea shortly before. We were in time to see them speeding away. However, the accusation that there is cooperation is not proven. I have not experienced this either. There is always a discussion about the so-called push and pull factors. Of course, human traffickers take people out to sea and tell them "you'll be rescued sooner or later."
But if you listen to people’s stories, you also have to realise that they’re not getting onto those crowded boats voluntarily. No one in their right mind would climb onto a rubber boat. People have no choice. There are reports from Amnesty International about human rights violations in Libya.
After a long time in a camp, without any means of protest, people are loaded onto a boat in the dead of night. There are also reports that anyone refusing is shot dead on the spot. There are people in our film reporting this too. We can’t check all these stories, but the large number of similar ones over the years indicate that there is at least some truth in them. Later, there was also a study about how many boats with refugees leave the Libyan coast when sea rescue boats are close. The study showed that the correlation is so small that it is impossible to conclude whether this is a push or pull factor.
People flee across the Mediterranean Sea and always have. There have been migratory movements for thousands of years. To argue that sea rescuers are to blame for the fact that refugees are fleeing is nonsense. The assertion that refugees flee across the Mediterranean Sea because of private sea rescue operations can be factually disproven.
Zora Siebert: Many legal proceedings have been initiated against members of the crew. For example, against the former Lifeline Captain Claus Peter Reisch, who was handed a financial penalty in Malta. This was overturned earlier this year. But Claus Peter Reisch no longer operates for Mission Lifeline, why?
Markus Weinberg: Like Carola Rackete at Seawatch, Claus Peter Reisch was a captain who was "hired" for this mission. Lifeline was looking for a captain for a mission, Claus Peter Reisch applied and because he already had experience on Seaeye, Mission Lifeline chose him. He was not "the" captain of Lifeline, but "a" captain.
In the film, you can see that Friedhold Ulonska was also a captain for Mission Lifeline. He operated several missions for them. When Lifeline was captured in the Mediterranean Sea in June 2018 and Claus Peter Reisch was accused, the association stood behind him and paid the legal costs. For an association such as Lifeline, which defines itself as left-wing, it was clear that it sees itself as a community of solidarity and supports Claus Peter Reisch.
But there were also different views on how to work together. Claus Peter Reisch has a completely different background: a Bavarian entrepreneur meets left-wing Dresden activists. They worked well together, but there comes a time when you have to say," it’s not working out anymore", and you move on. What I think is positive, as an outsider, is that Lifeline is supporting him, despite some snide remarks Claus Peter Reisch made, and is saying "it's all about the cause". Claus Peter Reisch continued to be supported, even though he is perhaps disappointed that things are not going the way he imagined.
Zora Siebert: How do you see the role of cities and municipalities? While EU member states cannot agree on a common policy, we can see at the local level that it is possible. Many cities and municipalities want to welcome refugees. I am thinking, for example, of the Seebrücke Initiative.
Markus Weinberg: A major accusation from the right wing is that decisions are being made over the heads of the population. I think that's fascinating because now something is happening in communities and cities, thanks to Seebrücke. Cities and municipalities want to decide for themselves whether or not they can welcome refugees.
In June 2018, the "Lifeline" had to wait at sea for days with 234 people on board because no European seaport would allow them to dock. It was due to indignation over this that the Seebrücke movement was founded in Germany within days. The idea was for municipalities, communities, and cities to declare themselves safe harbours.
In other words, they declare themselves in favour of accepting people into their communities who have been rescued at sea. They say: "we have room and we can occupy the places that have been created for people." That was the idea of the movement and it went through Germany like wildfire. I was very pleased about that.
A concrete action, which politically motivated people initiated in their hometowns. They said: "we demand a vote in the city or municipal council". They have launched petitions for these votes to be held. As a result, all political groups will have to deal with the issue, from AfD to the Left.
There are now around 140 cities and municipalities that have declared themselves a safe harbour. But in Germany, the sticking point is the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which has not approved it. They decide whether refugees can come or not. In my opinion, it should be possible to make this decision at the city level, where people know each other and are in favour of accepting refugees. In the end, it is the local people who integrate refugees.
On the other hand, I think it is wrong to denounce a city that decides that it does not want to welcome refugees. It is a democratic process. If there is a vote, then of course there can be a "yes" or a "no", and in the same way we have to accept that there are communities that do not want to take any more refugees.
You have to set a good example to others; democratically demanded elections can also be lost. The examples of Markus Söder and Horst Seehofer, make it clear that there is a change of thinking, at least externally. Both are distancing themselves from the "AfD rhetoric" because they have noticed the pressure from 140 communities. This is a political force. Markus Söder and Horst Seehofer have probably realised that they are more likely to lose people's support if they use the same rhetoric as the AfD. This change in language alone is a small success, although I don't think the two have actually changed their mindsets. Maybe it is opportunism, but I think this small change alone might be a good start.
Zora Siebert: In spring, the European Commission plans to present the "New Pact for Migration and Asylum". It is not yet clear what it will contain. At the same time, the situation on the Greek islands and the border with Turkey is becoming more and more serious. As a long-time observer of rescue missions, what do you think should change in the European refugee policy? What should be done better?
Markus Weinberg: I don't have an overall solution for such major crises either. I am only an observer. I would appreciate it if words were followed by actions and we stick to our values. First and foremost, it is a matter of complying with international law, whether it is the Geneva Convention on Refugees, the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, or for that the non-refoulment principle. These are European values that have existed for decades.
Zora Siebert: The European Convention on Human Rights can also be included.
Markus Weinberg: We should stick to the values that Europe parades publicly. We should stand by these values, even if they come under pressure. That would be the first step. We don't have to reinvent the wheel, we have to stick to our existing values. Then many problems would be solved because there is already a plan. I'm not a fan of reinventing everything, of making everything even more detailed. The first thing you should do is to keep to what you have agreed.
I believe that the debate on refugees must also be about fair trading conditions, about major global issues that even Europe cannot resolve on its own. Whether there will ever be an ideal world of fairness, I don't know. But we have to start somewhere and create opportunities. Europe should start with itself and I think that we would lose absolutely nothing. On the contrary, Europe would become more attractive.
Many countries simply lack the opportunity to participate. Here in Germany, there is a lot of talk about participation, about equal opportunities. Today, for example, there are hardly any training opportunities or exchanges for people from outside the EU, so this could be a starting point.
If we start creating more equal opportunities and participation – and we can manage this without a revolution – processes could gradually be created that could also help people on the ground and prevent them from fleeing. You cannot prevent flight and migration by – as Ursula von der Leyen says – using Greece as a "shield" or by building a "Fortress Europe", but you have to do this intelligently by talking to the people.
Most of the refugees say that they want to go to Europe, but if you spend a bit more time talking to them, it becomes clear that most of them want to live where they grew up, where their families are. Everywhere on earth is somebody's home. Everyone has the feeling of home within themselves. There are certainly people who do not need it, but most people want to go back to where they came from. Many people who are fleeing are doing so out of necessity. Whether it is war, economic hardship or other reasons, to flee is a legitimate remedy. There are thousands of ways for the EU to change things without giving up its system of values.
Zora Siebert: You're still on the road with "Mission Lifeline" touring cinemas and debates. What stage of your journey are you at now?
Markus Weinberg: We are definitely on the road with the film until autumn. The evaluation period will take about one and a half years. It started in May 2019 and in the next two months, we have 40 events with a debate coming up. Every other day, Captain Friedhold Ulonska or I will be present at a film discussion. In the political arena, I am involved this year with “Mission Lifeline", and away from politics, I am presenting two reports this year in the field of sports and outdoor activities.
*The original interview was conducted in German and is available here.
Markus Weinberg was born in Dresden in 1983 and studied political science, modern and contemporary history and sociology at Dresden. Even before his time as a student and professional racing cyclist, Weinberg travelled the world, taking stories with him wherever he went. He has been telling them for a few years now. Among other projects, he worked as a freelance editor for the MDR, a video journalist throughout Saxony and as print editor for the Dresdner Morgenpost. Today Markus works as a freelance editor/ video journalist/ documentary filmmaker.