Òscar Camps (Barcelona, 1963) is the founder and director of Proactiva Open Arms. He received the Premi Català de l'Any (Catalan of the Year Prize) in 2015 in recognition of his work: saving lives. Saving the lives of refugees, at land and at sea. VIA Empresa interviewed Camps during the last Forum Cornellà Creació of the year to talk about the past, present and future of the NGO, which was launched with 15,000 euros. Now, however, it raises "money in no time" and he lauds its great power of communication. He speaks bluntly, critical that "our politicians are crap", "information is heavily slanted towards national interests" and "when there are no cameras around they mess with us." It is a constant struggle for hope: "Nothing will stop us."
What is a typical working day like in Proactiva Open Arms?
They are all very intense. Both on land or at sea. We set up as an NGO because there was no alternative and it was obligatory. More than an organisation, we are a group of citizens who work hard on what is happening in the Mediterranean. You know where you start the day but not where it will end. We live with a lot of improvising and we have to be agile to be where we need to be.
"My work is fuelled by emotions, and money isn't everything. There are always lots of difficulties as an entrepreneur: it is difficult, it isn't legal..."
Is it more about the heart than the head?
There is no doubt my work is fuelled by emotions. There is the professional part, but money isn't everything. I am an entrepreneur who was happy managing and guaranteeing the safety of the beaches along a large part of the Spanish coast, but I was also fed up with attending to jellyfish stings. I found out there were people who were dying in other places and I had the capacity, the know-how and the material to help. There are a lot of difficulties as an entrepreneur: it's difficult, it's not legal...
Let's go back to the beginning. What was the turning point?
In August 2015 my daughter and I were looking at Facebook and we saw some children floating in the water. I had been following what was happening in the Mediterranean for some time through Doctors without Borders. I took some holidays and went to Rhodes, and one day on the beach I found a shoe that did not belong to a tourist. That was when I made my decision.
How did you put the idea into practice?
I was the organisation's first donor: I paid for all the material and funds needed for one action. We began with 15,000 euros, which was the cost of a ship in Valencia that I had been tracking. I suggested to my team that we should go to Greece, because people were dying there and so I wrote letters to the Greek ambassador in Spain and the Spanish ambassador in Greece, the international cooperation agency, the foreign office, the Barcelona regional council, mayor Ada Colau, Doctors without Borders... None of them replied. So I went to Greece with Gerard Canals, but we did not know which island we would end up on, which in the end was Lesbos.
The struggle began in Lesbos.
From the airport we could see the refugee boats arriving, and there were life jackets everywhere. How can there be such a lack of security in an international airport? There was plenty of talk of Islamic terrorism, Syria was in the middle of a war, and everything was chaotic. We went to the north of the island, which was about 70 kilometres away, where thousands of people were arriving every day. We went there like hikers without any resources and there were no tourists on Lesbos, only journalists but it wasn't appearing in the media. On the first day we helped in the water, in shorts, and we got our mobiles and wallets soaked. Then we put uniforms on, got a whistle, flippers, a walkie talkie... It was all very precarious but we identified geographical accidents, communication centres, aerials... We set up a team covering 17 kilometres and we rescued 32,000 people.
Is funding one of the NGO's biggest problems?
On the contrary, it's really easy. In our first week in Lesbos we were interviewed by the BBC. One man recommended setting up an NGO, as that way they could not throw us out. We set up a website, crowdfunding... A friend set up a website for us with PayPal and in 24 hours money had come in from all over Silicon Valley. In next to no time we had 50,000 euros. We received support from the businesswoman Amy Rao, who is a close friend of Hillary Clinton and the widow of actor Robin Williams. I sent a video to Toms Molina, who is from Badalona, and it was shown on the TN Migdia news bulletin, I made some statements to the New York Times criticising Frontex and the EU after a boat sank, and we ended up on El Intermedio, which made us known in Spain. We got some 130,000 euros in donations.
"We set about not only saving lives but also publicising the conflict"
A year later you raised 700,000 euros with the Astral on the Salvados TV programme.
We raise money in no time. The most important thing is why you do what you do. We set up an organisation because we believe in what we do and that we can't let anyone die. We paid absolutely no attention to the legal side. We have preconceptions when it comes to sitting down and analysing the situation, but when the time comes the truth is you have to act. And then you have to communicate. The images speak for themselves. We set about not only saving lives but also publicising the conflict. The first donations during the first two years came from social media.
Are you here to stay?
We are a small new order of humanitarian aid and public mobilisation to provide a response to a specific situation. Without the need for structure, nor growth, nor to create a large organisation like the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, UNHCR... However, I am an entrepreneur and I suffer because I am not on top of my business and the results are not as good as I would like. I would love to be finished tomorrow so I could get back to work.
"I am an entrepreneur and I suffer because I am not on top of my business and the results are not as good as I would like"
You can't live from an NGO, but NGOs have to find a way of continuing their work.
When I was awarded the Premi Català de l'Any. I said I wished they hadn't given it to me because I would prefer the government to do the work I'm doing. However, it's easier for a civil initiative to get going than waiting for the State machinery to get around to providing a response. Why weren't Doctors without Borders or UNHCR there? They are large organisations with large budgets. We, with just 15,000 euros, saved lives. And communicating it well.
Without communication there is no mobilisation.
Obviously. My argument with UNHCR started when they told me we had no financial problems because we were lucky enough to be in the middle of a media conflict. A mistake. In 2014 I didn't know anyone. In the same way that there is very little reporting on what goes on in the south of Spain.
"How is it that the information about boats in danger, rescues, landings, shipwrecks, deaths and disappearances can be so clearly falsified and manipulated?" you wrote.
Everything is biased. I could talk about real global figures that are far from what they want to sell us. They tell us that it is an invasion, a humanitarian crisis... From the 1960s until now, the proportion of migrants in the world's population is between 3% and 4%. Except for the 1990s, due to the war in the Balkans and after it, due to the war in Syria. But I can also say that there were 96 million migrants in the world in the 1960s and 284 million migrants in 2018.
It is all relative...
Yes, and what is behind it? In the 1960s there were three billion people in the world and now there are more than seven billion. Only between 7% and 8% are refugees. Some 84% of the refugees are in third-world countries and the rest would all fit in a city like Istanbul. Some 50,000 arrived through the south of Spain and 99,000 through other places in the south of Europe. Pablo Casado says that it is an invasion, but they don't stay in Spain.
"I don't want government subsidies because it ties our hands and I prefer to be independent"
You often differ from the European Commission's figures that say they saved 620,000 lives in 2015 thanks to operations in Italy and Greece. What proportion of those were rescued by the authorities and what proportion by NGOs?
Spain has the advantage of having a civil rescue force, which is the Maritime Safety and Rescue Society, along with the Guardia Civil and the Navy. There are a lot of interests at play. Spain has no function outside NATO and the Navy would happily manage the Maritime Safety and Rescue Society, but that would turn it into a military coast guard. Everyone is envious of Spain for having a civil force but it is mute because it works for the State and has a confidentiality agreement. It would be perverse to use a military force to save lives. We went to the south of Spain to explain and condemn what is happening there. And they blocked us. The Guardia Civil has been perverted for decades and now it is repressive like all police forces. There is very little below those tricorn hats. Someone should impose order and follow brave policies.
Give an example.
There are all those police and NGOs have to save lives? Letting a few nerds with money on social media embarrass us? Something's not right... I am no politician, I'm a businessman. Resources have to optimised. My boat costs 7,500 euros a day and it saves a lot of lives. the Maritime Safety and Rescue Society's costs three times that. The head of the Maritime Safety and Rescue Society's union is from CGT, who are extortioners. It's all very complex. What are we to do?
What are we to do?
The Maritime Safety and Rescue Society was private, from a tender process. Since it became public it has cost another billion euros. The Guardia Civil is the only one in charge of migration in Spain and the Maritime Safety and Rescue Society is under its orders. We don't know what is happening and the figures are not real. The information is very slanted because there are national interests. Pedro Snchez is trapped by the independence parties and the problem of migration is according to the interpretation of the media. No one is telling the truth, just what is in their interest... I didn't know any of that but if you are a businessperson you begin to see it.
What else have you seen?
On my phone, before there were hotels and local councils. Now there are ministers, I write Whatsapp messages to the Vatican, to Guardiola... It is very broad. If you were to come up with a vaccine for a tropical illness on an island then it would be difficult to fund it. We have done everything transparently on social media. The NGO's accounts are on the website: some 90% of the donations are private and that gives us independence. I don't want government subsidies because it ties our hands. The Red Cross is silent, it does not protest but its salaries are covered. If there is no money, we can't do anything.
How much money are we talking about?
Getting the boat out of port costs me 4,000 euros in diesel each day. If I were to tell people that half of the donations they make are spent on fuel, paying the oil companies that causes half of the conflicts around the world!... People wouldn't like it. The boat does not run on treats but on diesel and no one wants to pay for that for me. With a boat and social media we have rescued 59,500 people in three years. We put the authorities to shame.
What role do the authorities play?
What could 28 governments do? They don't want to do anything. Still, we keep going and we only need between 3.5 and 4 million euros a year. We have no members and we don't know if we will be able to continue tomorrow or not. Why would we need a structure or a building? There's no reason. We could spend money, but we preferred to send a team to Senegal and Ghana and explain everything that happens on the journeys. I wish there were a hundred organisations like ours... The money ends up with the big ones because they are controlled.
"With a boat and money from social media we have rescued 59,500 people"
You argue that to save lives you need to be there.
Some 80 years ago, the Germans had concentration camps next to cities but for decades they made us believe that no German knew about them. Everything that is happening with people fleeing conflicts and who come out of fear, poverty or need is exactly the same. In 40 or 50 years when they talk about all of this it will be remembered that European society showed no solidarity and that we were not up to the task. In 20 years, the population in Africa will double. Globalisation is not about McDonald's everywhere but rather about the right to migrate. They cannot stop you from leaving. The situation today is not sustainable...
Can we help?
There will be 150 million people who will move in the next few years for reasons of climate, conflict, need. On land they are militarising the borders, so how will people move? We have always moved to find a better place to live and not even the sea, mountains or glaciation has stopped us. They will never stop us. Many will die but others will get there. They won't be able to stop it. Mid and long-term policies are needed. With brave politicians and brave policies. Let's prepare these people, but without expropriating their countries, exploiting their resources, interfering in their development just for national interests... Our politicians are crap. We are the ones who have to swallow all of this, but the power is with the people and the city.
"The Europe of nation states is dead, everything is evolving towards the cities"
The Europe of nation states is dead and the Europe of regions, too. Everything is evolving towards cities and the relationship will be more direct between councils and citizens. We want our boat to have the support of cities and we want an alliance of Mediterranean cities that are against the general policies and in favour of human rights.
Imagine what Proactiva Open Arms will be like in a few years.
How many channels of migration by sea are there around the world? If the media do not focus on it, people will not know about it and so there will be no political pressure. We have to condemn things to make them change. Why did Snchez accept the Aquarius? We have been raising awareness in Spain for three years. Snchez accepted the Aquarius because he thought it would awaken sympathy in the left but they went on to reject it. When there are no cameras about, our boat is messed about for two months in the south of Spain, waiting for an agreement that never arrives. Italy used the courts to stop our boat for a month and a half and they accused us of enabling illegal migration. It was all lies, but they stopped us PSOE has bear-hugged us: they cannot say that the Guardia Civil does not want me nor that Fernando Grande-Marlaska is in charge. They cannot say that if Snchez wants to win the election he has to be able to control the power of the independence movement and the force of migration because if not the right will use it to take votes away from him. They'll mess me about to the point of death, but I'll talk about it.