Joe Morris’ far from ordinary life at sea

By Sharon Greally
Photographed by Fabian Melber

Featured in Capital #81
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Joe Morris plunged headfirst into a stormy Mediterranean scene when he began to rescue refugees. He talks to Sharon Greally about his work at sea.

Skala Sikaminias sounds exotic. It’s a quaint fishing village on the northernmost coast of the Greek island of Lesvos. The rugged volcanic landscape, olive groves, and local ouzo appeal to tourists. But the tides bring in more than fish these days, as thousands of refugees make the perilous journey to Europe.

Desperate migrants wash up on Lesvos in dilapidated dinghies, smuggled mainly from Libya, Turkey, and Morocco. People escaping their circumstances are exploited by racketeers. The Libyan coastguard works hard to prevent people from disembarking, which means conditions on the boats are horrendous. Many do not survive the crossing.

When Wellingtonian Joe Morris was living in London, he learnt about the work being done to help refugees. He then went to Lesvos for a month in 2017, and offered his skills as “a general hands-on Kiwi kinda guy” with a knowledge of boating. He “fell in love with the people,” and became the shore-based rescue team lead, and then became involved in rescue on the sea.

“The volunteer members of our team were crucial to our operations, but they rarely had sufficient experience in emergency response. I was considered experienced after only three months in Skala.”

Like so many Wellingtonians, Joe grew up mucking around on boats and by the sea; whether heading down the Sounds for summer, fishing in Cook Strait, or walking around the south coast with his mum as a child. His grandfather built the family boat at his home in Lower Hutt in the late 50s.

“The boat, Tapanui, has outlasted him and Dad. Dad competed very successfully in open ocean yacht races in the 80s, although by the time I came around he was happy to go slow and catch a fish. I never felt the urge to race yachts. I feel happiest at sea, which no doubt helps me to stay calm in rescue situations.”

Responding effectively and humanely to the systemic crisis poses a huge challenge to governments and NGOs, something Morris has seen first-hand. The refugees who reach European shores can’t always be saved, and it’s devastating, he says.

“They’re often severely dehydrated and traumatised. Petrol is stored in very unstable containers, so people can end up with horrific burns. Many are unable to swim, and many drown leaping off the boats to reach shore.”

Skala Sikaminias, Morris explains, has been the focal point of migration into Europe since 2015. In the initial stages of the influx, fishermen and the ill-equipped coastguard were the only emergency responders until support arrived from the UNHCR and NGOs such as Lighthouse Relief and Refugee Rescue.

The locals provided knowledge of the physical and political terrain, and many of them also became friends. “I managed to blend in, so wasn’t a target for these fascist groups that were arriving to protest against the refugees’ arrival. I felt fairly safe, but it was scary. One time they threw petrol onto a boat, with people on it, and set it alight. Aid workers as well as refuges were targeted.”

Morris served as media coordinator for Refugee Rescue in Lesvos for a year, and completed further search and rescue training there. Then, in September 2019, he embarked on a post-graduate diploma in Global Health in Barcelona. But he couldn’t keep away from Lesvos, spending Christmas and New Year’s there as part of Refugee Rescue’s skeleton lifeboat crew, in terrible weather. “During a storm close to Christmas we received some dodgy information from the Coastguard: there ‘might be’ a boat in distress. With no exact location, we sat out on the border in our tiny lifeboat for hours. The weather was too rough to perform any search patterns.

“It took the SAR coordinator several taps of my shoulder, and then several more to turn the boat around and take us home. It was maybe 1am by the time we got in. In the daylight of the following morning there were no signs of a boat, but in that kind of weather there wouldn’t have been.” They had several rescues over the holiday period. “After one false alarm, we made it back to the taverna just in time to count in the new year, only to be called back out half an hour later.” Crazy hours were the norm: the volunteers spent their down-time playing backgammon and drinking Greek coffee.

In February 2020, Joe finished his diploma, and a month later Refugee Rescue asked him to return to Lesvos and help restore operations that had been shut down under threat of fascist attacks. Most of the staff and volunteers had been evacuated, including vital workers from Médecins Sans Frontières. He returned to Lesvos, intending to stay several months, but coronavirus intervened. After just 10 days of preparing the lifeboat, and providing ad hoc support for arriving refugees, a total lockdown of the island was announced.

“Refugee Rescue were again forced to suspend operations. This was an incredibly tough decision to stomach. I had little option to stay, and within 24 hours I was on a flight back to New Zealand, scampering home via Istanbul and Singapore. The flight was packed. It really felt like the world was shutting down.” Morris was heartbroken at having to leave. After a frustrating year of watching events from afar, in March 2021, he joined German NGO Sea-Watch to crew on their rescue ship Sea Watch 4 as a RHIB (Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat) driver.

Sea-Watch operates rescue missions in the central Mediterranean, mainly in the large expanse of sea between Libya and Italy, including Malta. While many celebrities support this work, some governments do not. Boats carrying migrants are turned back to their ports of origin. This is not only dangerous, but also illegal under the Geneva convention and EU legislation. Sea-Watch states, “We stand up against criminalization of people on the run.”

Morris travelled to the port of Burriana, south of Barcelona, to join crew in pre-mission quarantine, then training and familiarisation with the vessel, and reuniting with old friends. “I love the camaraderie of the team, and the adrenaline rush of the job,” says Morris. “I feel I have the skills and motivation to make a difference long term.”

He studied History and Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington. “I love history but I’m glad, in hindsight, I stopped after my Bachelor’s degree. The last few years would look very different if I’d gone down the career path of an historian,” he said. In April they sailed from Spain to the Libyan Search and Rescue Zone. “During the transit from Spain to the Southern Mediterranean, I found out my partner back in New Zealand was pregnant. I suddenly started paying a little more attention to the safety protocols on board.”

They carried out six rescues within 72 hours. “With 456 rescued people on board, there was very little space on deck, yet still we were hearing of distress cases. It was tough.” And the need is growing: in May this year, Sea-Watch 4 pulled 450 migrants from the ocean, compared with 150 for the same period the previous year. The harrowing rescues take their toll. The crew comprise four full-time staff and, ideally, at least 12 volunteers. Most volunteers only stay a short time, suffering mental anguish and physical exhaustion. Mental health resources have improved, says Morris. “They were initially pretty much non-existent.”

Morris had met his German partner Elena while she was studying and working in Wellington in 2019, during a brief period back home. They got together last year, before he left for the Sea-Watch mission. He now works remotely as the media coordinator for Sea-Watch from his home in Strathmore. The future is uncertain for Morris. He’s learning German, and would like to return to Europe next year, and to live in Germany near his partner’s family, closer to the coal face – “to continue this work, with a few alterations to incorporate, including fatherhood!”


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