SOS Mediterranee wins 'Alternative Nobel Prize'

The maritime rescue group has won the Right Livelihood Award for its life-saving missions helping imperiled migrants on the Mediterranean Sea

SOS Mediterranee believes it has rescued some 36,000 people (photo: DW)
SOS Mediterranee believes it has rescued some 36,000 people (photo: DW)


Thousands of people trying to make their way to Europe drown in the Mediterranean Sea annually. In 2022, more than 2,400 people lost their lives, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), though no one knows the exact number for sure.

Without the non-governmental organization SOS Mediterranee, that total would likely be much higher. The European humanitarian group claims to have rescued some 36,000 people in trouble at sea since they began their patrols.

Prizewinners drive home humanitarian crisis

For these efforts, SOS Mediterranee was handed the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes dubbed the "Alternative Nobel Prize," on Thursday. Once a year, the Swedish foundation of the same name confers its prize to individuals and organizations that work for peace, sustainability or a more just world.

Regarding SOS Mediterranee, the prize-givers explained that the organization does more than save lives. Time and time again, the group has sensitized the public about the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, not to mention European political institutions.

Their inaction prompted German Captain Klaus Vogel and French anthropologist Sophie Beau to set up the organization in 2015, bringing together people from France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Since 2019, their rescue vessel "Ocean Viking" has been patrolling the Mediterranean.

A wake-up call for politicians and the public

SOS Mediterranee's goal was to step up where state institutions were failing to save lives at sea. In late 2014, the Italian naval and air operation that saved tens of thousands of lives, Mare Nostrum, had wound down. Later missions organized by the European Union focused on preventing smuggling and not keeping people in jeopardy at sea.

In an interview with the German daily newspaper Tagesspiegel in July 2021, co-founder Vogel said he had hoped to shake up politics with the initiative. (On January 1, 2022, the German offshoot of SOS Mediterranee split off from the alliance and renamed itself SOS Humanity, according to its own statements).

In recent years, according to UNHCR, state institutions in the EU have significantly scaled back maritime rescue, and private organizations have taken over their duties. Moreover, these groups frequently flag the increasing difficulties they face when dealing with authorities.

Caroline Abu Sa'da from the Swiss office of SOS Mediteranee said she was pleased the prize would help raise awareness of the plight of thousands of people risking their lives. That is another of SOS Mediterranee's goals – to ensure the voices of those rescued don't go unheard.

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Published: 28 Sep 2023, 1:04 PM