When Spanish lifeguard Oscar Camps traveled to the Greek Island of Lesbos to help rescue migrants from drowning in September 2015, he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis—hundreds of men, women and children desperately throwing themselves onto barely seaworthy boats to escape from Turkey to Greece.
“When we got to Lesbos we realized that no one was there,” Camps told NBC Latino, “there were no volunteer organizations or governmental institutions, and people were drowning. So we had to start working fast. And on our first day, we rescued people with almost no gear—swim fins and a neoprene wetsuit.”
Since then, two islands in the Mediterranean—Lesbos in Greece and Lampedusa in Italy—have become battlefronts in a much wider political war about border security and immigration. Camps used his life savings to found the nonprofit Proactiva Open Arms, an organization that helped over 140,000 migrants reach land safely. It has also rescued another 20,000 caught adrift, trapped on coastal cliffs and in direct danger of drowning
The organization is receiving the $100,000 ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism in New York on April 16.
Camps told NBC Latino that the migrant crisis is a symptom of a much wider tragedy that impacts all of humanity.
“We [referring to Europeans, Americans, and other people around the world] have labeled immigrants in a very tendentious way as ‘terrorists’, ‘economic refugees’, and other adjectives that polarize public opinion against them,” said Camps. “But all of these people belong to families. We rescue entire families who flee persecution from war because they refused to join one side or another.”
Two months before Camps reached Lesbos, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that the majority of migrants who risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2015—137,000 men, women and children from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and other countries—qualified for refugee status. The agency calculated that over one million migrants crossed to Italy and Greece in all of 2015. And while that number has decreased to almost 345,000 in 2016, the migrant death toll rose to an all-time high—with over 5,000 dead or missing that same year