Forgotten Humanitarians – reflections on the death of Rupert Neudeck, founder of the German humanitarian organisation Cap Anamur

Many called him naïve, and he certainly showed little interest in the structural conditions or the violence that caused people to flee their countries of origin, nor in wider geopolitical dynamics that often determine the concrete parameters of humanitarian action. He was moved by individual destinies, the bare life of people who suffered and needed to be helped, full-stop. And in 1979, the people in dire need of such help were people drowning on un-seaworthy boats while trying to flee Vietnam.

Rupert Neudeck thus became famous for the rescue of these so-called Vietnamese boat-people when in 1979 he, together with German writer Heinrich Böll and some friends, started the organisation ‘a ship for Vietnam’ that rescued more than 10.000 of destitute Vietnamese most of whom would in all likelihood have drowned otherwise. It later mutated into the humanitarian organisation Cap Anamur with the general goal to help refugees and displaced people worldwide. The Vietnamese boat-people were then seen – not by him, he did not care for such labels – as refugees from communist dictatorship and most were settled in Europe or the US, Canada and Australia.

Little such luck for most of the contemporary ‘boat-people’ in the Mediterranean, 700 of whom are feared dead in one of the deadliest weeks of late, the week before Neudeck’s death. They increasingly meet barbed wire, fences and walls instead of a warm welcome, a hug, or a dry place to sleep. And one can rightly question – as I myself have done often enough– the symbolism of the picture of a dead baby or toddler that also accompanied the latest tragic deaths, causing short-lived outrage combined with ‘business as usual’ and the refusal to search for sustainable solutions. At the same time, what Neudeck, however infuriating he could be, propagated, was that human tragedies of any proportion were ultimately felt at the level of simple, individual human beings. Those fellow humans needed immediate help – his credo was the humanitarian impulse in its purest form. This made him successful in explaining to plumber Jo why a Vietnamese boat-person needed his help– not always, but often enough. He got a great many people to believe that the stranger about to drown had more in common with them than they might have ever imagined. He was, a rare quality in this rather cynical world, authentic.

Neudeck was also highly controversial, not least within humanitarian circles, and arguably with good reason. People who worked for him were supposed to live on good will and enthusiasm in order not to use resources for themselves that could be used for those who suffered. And while his own lifestyle was reportedly Spartan, much is to be said for a proper meal, a bed for the night and a good rest for those at the humanitarian forefront, things he felt were unnecessary luxuries. In many ways, he was the antidote to the increasing professionalization of humanitarian action – and as such people like him might have a lot of value in some ways, but also create a lot of problems further down the line.

He also did not trust technology and surveillance in the humanitarian field, as in his view one could only understand how people really lived and suffered when one engaged with them, on the ground and on their terrain. He thus went, was touched and tried to help as best as he could. One cannot run the international humanitarian system on such impulses – but more immersion and less simulation, as Mark Duffield points out in a recent article, might indeed have a lot of value. A reflection on the life and death of Rupert Neudeck and his legacy in the German publication die tageszeitung says it well: One does not need to agree in any way with his views or actions to mourn his death as a loss to humanity.

This is particularly true at a time when the contemporary ‘boat-people’, the refugees and migrants that see no other way into Europe as to embark on similar rickety boats as the boat-people of Vietnam in the 1970s, start drowning again in increasing numbers. Another German organisation, Sea-Watch, founded and driven by similar personal concerns for the suffering of others, feels like a fitting tribute.

About: Sea-Watch e.V. – Secure maritime escape routes

Since the year 2000 more than 23.000 people died trying to reach Europe’s shores. After the end of Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean Sea three business partners from Germany decided to found the non-profit NGO Sea-Watch e.V. The organisation is acting politically, economically and religiously independent and has two boats that patrol the Mediterranean. For more information see: http://sea-watch.org/en/

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