Why you should care

Because in a crisis where everybody is losing, this is a win-win.

By now you know the story: Desperate Syrians board a boat in Turkey. The boat sinks on the way to Greece. Syrians wash ashore dead. It’s hard to know how many have died on the dangerous Mediterranean route, but the International Organization for Migration estimates 3,770 in the past year alone. The death toll rises so predictably, one might think it’s a natural disaster.

Except that it’s not a natural disaster. And here’s a possible solution: Pay fishermen in the Mediterranean, many of them jobless thanks to overfishing, to rescue drowning refugees. Today, a handful of coast guard ships are canvassing the waters for shivering survivors, and nongovernmental organizations are begging the world for donations. Meanwhile, dozens of well-equipped fishing boats sit anchored on islands like Lesbos and Samos, unused and gathering crustaceans. It’s time we tap into this pool of equipment, and the potential heroes who own it.

Technically, helping refugees who are not in imminent danger of drowning can be equated to human trafficking.

To some extent, this is already happening. On the Italian island of Lampedusa, for instance, local fishermen have saved the lives of hundreds of refugees. But they pay a price. Technically, helping refugees who are not in imminent danger of drowning can be equated to human trafficking. And even bringing survivors to shore can get fishermen into legal trouble. Besides, it’s a hassle: Fishermen sometimes sail off-course for miles looking for a place to dock, footing the gas bill from their own shallow pockets.

Fishing in the Mediterranean is undergoing a crisis of its own. Thanks to overfishing, climate change and the occasional oil spill, much of the sea’s biomass is vanishing. A study by the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research found that most fish stocks in the Mediterranean are overexploited, which explains why a fourth of all so-called European catch comes from outside European waters (often in West Africa). Independent fishermen used to wake at dawn to feed nations. Now they have little more to do than wait for retirement.

Instead of neglecting these potential lifesavers, we should empower them. European governments could give them sea rescue training, pay for their fuel and have them work with the coast guard. “We know the sea, we know how to help. And we want to,” says Salvatore Martello, president of a Lampedusa fishermen’s association. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask for compensation.” It wouldn’t be totally unprecedented either. In some parts of Spain, public authorities pay traditional fishermen generously to catch inedible jellyfish so that beachgoers won’t get stung. Surely the refugee crisis is more urgent than the jellyfish crisis.

Granted, professional sea rescuers may cringe at the thought of a bunch of old men with nets fishing for … humans. And fishermen alone won’t provide a solution to the largest refugee crisis since World War II. “We don’t need more Band-Aid solutions. What we really need is safe corridors,” says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative Alessandra Romano. Still, corridors look unlikely in the near term, if ever, especially after the November terrorist attacks in Paris. Poland and other countries have already walked back their resettlement commitments.

Meanwhile, boatloads, literally, of people die every week on Europe’s shores, while thousands of bored fishermen hope for a chance to make a living, and a difference. Let them help.

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