“I’m not a humanitarian.” Search and rescue captain rebukes Paris’ highest honour

Pia Klemp, the search-and-rescue captain who saved migrants in the Mediterranean and is being prosecuted by Italian courts, has refused a medal from Paris Mayor Anne Hildago due to the treatment of migrants in the French capital.

The Socialist Mayor prides herself on taking a more humanitarian approach to that of the French central government, and wanted to award Ms Klemp and Carole Rackete – another captain who has been pursued by Italian courts – for their search-and-rescue work.

But Klemp, originally from Germany, refused the medal, stating on her social media that:

“At the same time your police is stealing blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers.”

Many migrants sleep rough in Paris, and those in make-shift camps face police clearances. The situation received censure from the UN in April, and reports of police brutality in the capital are long-standing.

However, Klemp’s reasons for declining the medal also comes from a desire to “call out hypocrite honorings” of ‘humanitarians’.

“I’m not a humanitarian. I am not there to ‘aid’,” she wrote in a statement in French and English on her Facebook page.

“I stand with you in solidarity. We do not need medals. We do not need authorities deciding about who is a ‘hero’ and who is ‘illegal’.”

The Paris authorities defended their decision to grant the award and their treatment of migrants, and told Le Parisien that they are trying to contact Klemp ‘very quickly’.

Klemp, Rackete, and others are accused by Italy of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. They face up to 20 years in jail.

The Guardian reported that Klemp skippered the Iuvanta boat “on two missions in the summer of 2017, when on one day alone up to 3,800 people on smuggler boats in distress were saved. … [the ship] is believed to have saved 14,000 people in total during its time on the seas.”

In 2017, the Iuvanta was impounded by Italian authorities, who have accused the crew of working with smugglers.

European nations have largely abandoned organised sea rescues, and have penalised NGO boats who continue to save lives.

Mohammed Adam Oga, the sole survivor of a boat that failed to cross the Mediterranean, told reporters last week that numerous ships saw them in distress but did not provide aid. In the 11 days at sea, all the other 14 passengers died of hunger.

Yesterday, after a long stand-off of over two weeks, the Open Arms ship carrying rescued migrants was allowed to dock in Italy. Some, including people without lifejackets, had earlier jumped into the sea and attempted to swim to shore.

In this context, the prosecution of Klemp and others comes as part of a wave of crackdown on solidarity actions across Europe.

An Open Democracy investigation published in May compiled “the longest known list of more than 250 people across 14 countries who have been arrested, charged or investigated under a range of laws over the last five years for supporting migrants.”

‘Crimes’ include providing food, shelter, transport, or other support to undocumented migrants, and many have been charged for disrupting deportations.

With most cases coming from Italy, Greece, France, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Spain, the report suggest that there has been a “sharp increase” since 2019.

Kemp has accused the EU of letting people die in the Mediterranean and accused the Italian authorities of “criminalising solidarity”.

Italy’s far right interior minister Matteo Salvini made the issue of blocking humanitarian ships from docking a key part his agenda. As his coalition government collapses and a snap election looms, he may up end leader of the country.


When the award was announced last month, a statement from the Mayor’s office said that Klemp and Rackete were ‘emblems’ of “European values” and the fight against “the inertia of European governments” in allowing migrants to drown in the Med.

Italy’s Salvini decried the announcement at the time.

The announcement was made on the same day that hundreds of ‘gilets noirs’ undocumented migrants living in Paris occupied the Pantheon mausoleum to protest their maltreatment by French and Parisian authorities, and to call for regularisation of all undocumented migrants. Many were beaten by the police – who are not under the Mayor’s authority – arrested, and place in detention centres.

The City of Paris also awarded €100,000 to the NGO SOS Mediterranée for a new search-and-rescue ‘campaign’ to save migrants at sea. The City of Paris previously awarded €25,000 and €30,000 in 2016 and 2018 respectively.

The Grand Vermeil medal is the highest distinction of the City of Paris. Recent winners include the singer Patti Smith, tennis player Rafael Nadal, and Mamoudou Gassama – who made headlines last year when he climbed four storeys to save a four-year-old boy who was hanging from a balcony.

A spokesperson for Sea Watch told the Morning Star:

“We ask every European, every village, town, and city to not elevate sea rescue activists or other alleged ‘heroes’ but to step up and do what Pia and all our crew is constantly doing: make use of your power and change what’s in your vicinity to create a better, a more open and a more just Europe of solidarity.”

On a similar note, Klemp ended her post by saying:

“It is time we cast all medals into spearheads of revolution! Documents and housing for all! Freedom of movement and residence!”


Image by Ruben Neugebauer, licensed by Creative Commons.

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