“Be aware of the freedoms you have and act on them”: Interview with Antoine Laurent, Alumnus and Activist

Antoine Laurent was only 25 when he joined SOS Méditerranée, an NGO that rescues migrants in danger in the Mediterranean Sea. For more than two years, Antoine participated actively in the operations of the Aquarius, a search and rescue vessel that aided more than 30,000 people in the world’s deadliest migratory route, until the ship was taken out of action for political and legal reasons. An alumnus of the one-year Master in Advanced Global Studies at PSIA (International Energy track), Antoine has since continued to champion the cause while working in politics. His book Aquarius Logbook: In The Shoes of A Sea Rescuer (Fr) was published by Kero Editions in April 2021. Read our interview with an alumnus of many talents and an ever-committed activist.

What was your background prior to joining SOS Méditerranée? What inspired you to get involved with rescue work in the Mediterranean?

Antoine Laurent: I come from the coastal town of Lorient and I studied at the National Merchant Navy Academy in Le Havre. I learnt a lot there, not least the naval profession. I began my career as a mechanic in the merchant navy, then as a navigation officer, all over a period of almost four years. My duties were quite varied; I was primarily working in the oil sector on board different types of ship across Northern Europe, the Arctic, Oceania, the Caribbean Sea and the Mediterranean.

That I ended up leaving the navy to volunteer for SOS Méditerranée was first and foremost due to an increasing consciousness, from early on in my career, of the common good, public interest and issues of international social justice. By 2015, I could not really see myself continuing in the merchant navy, or the oil sector in particular, which I no longer felt cohered with my values. There was no single lightbulb moment: I became aware of the scale of the migrant crisis in Greece over the summer of 2015, then gradually I found out about the situation in the central Mediterranean, which seemed even more dramatic but was attracting less media attention, particularly in France. As a sailor, you absolutely cannot remain indifferent to what was and is still going on in the Mediterranean. I felt I had to do something to help, so I made myself and my skills known to SOS Méditerranée, who needed support at that time with their plan to send a major rescue vessel out to sea. I joined the Aquarius, which was chartered by the organisation to aid migrants off the coast of Libya, for the ship’s second rotation. I stayed at SOS Méditerranée more than two years: first on board, as a sea rescuer and ship captain, then as Maritime Operations Manager at the organisation’s head office.

Why did you decide to write your book Aquarius Logbook: In the Shoes of a Sea Rescuer? What message do you hope it will send? 

A.L.: After two years on Aquarius, including a time in a fairly central position for its operations, I did not feel I could leave the field without sharing what I knew and all that I had witnessed or experienced. I thought hard about the medium I could use to share all that, and a book seemed to me the best.

The main aim of the book and its message is to give people an awareness of what is actually going on day-to-day in the Mediterranean. I tried to focus on the details of the situation and allow readers’ curiosity to guide them. I think that is what rescuers struggle to do: to share their experiences and what they come to realise over the course of their missions. I wanted to produce a record that would be accessible to everyone and set out clearly what is happening in the sea. We hear a lot about the Mediterranean, see images, figures and so on, but many aspects are not properly understood. I really wanted to explain the primary reasons for the NGOs' work; the humanitarian and very practical reasons for how and why ships operate in the Mediterranean. What does a mission in the Mediterranean Sea involve? We went through some challenging times with Aquarius and there are countless complexities to consider in the work. The first thing I was struck by when I arrived was the professionalism of the Italian coastguards. It was obvious that they had much more advanced equipment, rigorous procedures and better trained individuals. When the Italians and EU forces withdrew, NGOs plugged the gap, and inevitably the sea became increasingly unsafe. All of which feeds into the argument that unless this crisis is dealt with by authorities, the humanitarian response will never be satisfactory, because NGOs are not always adequately equipped to handle it.

After that, the book recounts the journey I made in the field, between witnessing human suffering and discovering migration issues through the avenue of sea relief work. I wanted to guide readers to think more about an issue inadequately handled by both politicians and the media, to gain a broader perspective and to restore solidarity and compassion to the core of their considerations, without overlooking demographic, economic or cultural factors. Finally, the book also includes a political analysis of the way that the EU and European nations are responding to the issue. Through my testimonial, I wanted to explain the highly political dimension of the crisis for an ordinary audience. Ultimately, it was about saying to people: you are European citizens and, against your will, you are complicit in a humanitarian crisis. People are drowning in the Mediterranean and being tortured in Libya.

You now work in politics as an assistant to Green MP Matthieu Orphelin. What made you leave the Mediterranean?

A.L.: There were several reasons I left sea rescue. The first, I think, was my own wellbeing: it is demoralising to pour so much energy into an operation that, unfortunately, is essentially remedial and not preventive. It is completely legitimate and very important work, and I would encourage anyone to support humanitarian operations, but to stop myself feeling overwhelmed by anger and frustration at not being able to do enough, I wanted to take action further upstream. In the field, you feel very useful; you are providing direct relief, which, for some, is a core and crucial value. Unfortunately, however, these rescue ships will still be around for many years. So we have to divide up the tasks.

Over the course of my time at SOS Méditerranée, I realised that, for all the amazing capacities of the Aquarius and its team – we rescued more than 30,0000 people –, everything we did was dependent on something beyond our control. That is, on the political decisions made in Europe, Africa and elsewhere. All roads lead back to politics. Issues around human trafficking, resource extraction in Libya, social inequalities in Sub-Saharan or East Africa, the instability in the Sahel: all of these come down to political leaders squabbling and being unable to agree. If you do not understand why there are foreign forces in Libya or how the Libyan militia came to be, you can never really grasp why migrants are treated the way they are and why they end up in flimsy dinghies out at sea. As soon as you have understood that and made up your mind to act, it becomes natural and urgent to get involved with politics, because that is where a lot of the decisions get made.

What made you decide to go back to studying and why at Sciences Po?

A.L: I knew I wanted to work in policy, but not how or at what level: whether international, European, national, local, within EU institutions, NGOs, diplomacy, civil service etc. So I decided to go back to studying almost as a way of rebooting my brain, taking the time to think and discover new perspectives. In my view, if we want to deal with migration issues at their root, it is really a question of combatting inequality and preserving the environment in which people live. Forced migration is only a symptom of a poorly functioning society. I was facing a colossal dilemma, which is particularly relevant for our generation today: how could I individually, with my small hands, contribute to the fight against global warming and the extinction of life on Earth, the causes of which are closely linked to inequality?

I arrived at Sciences Po through the avenue of thinking about international social justice and the climate. So I opted for the International Energy track of the one-year Master’s in Advanced Global Studies (MAGS), which is very much connected to issues around ecological transition. I had already gained some experience in economic and geopolitical aspects of energy through my previous studies and my work in the oil sector. The Master’s allowed me to broaden my knowledge of topics like electricity production, energy market regulation, resource distribution, energy efficiency policy, European cooperation and more. It was not always heartening content! It made me more aware of the numerous technical, economic, but also cultural obstacles to energy transition, particularly the notion of “energy sobriety”, which goes against what we have been doing for two centuries!

In the end, I came to the conclusion that, as a French person, it made sense for me to work at a national level. The most powerful nations in the world, of which France is one, have influence internationally, so I decided to go where that influence is strongest. Reclaiming some of their power is no short-term endeavour, but it is a necessary one. I spent a year and a half as a parliamentary assistant and then I managed the election campaign for Green representative Matthieu Orphelin in the Pays de la Loire region. That was my sixth job in eight years that had absolutely nothing to do with previous ones! Unfortunately, we did not win the regional election but we were at least able to inspire hope in the left and the Green party in France. Our next hurdle is the presidential election. Whatever the end result, and it absolutely must be the best one possible for the environment and social justice, this election is a chance to really push issues forward in the public debate.

What do you hope to achieve in your political work? What message would you like to send to the young people of your generation and to students at Sciences Po and elsewhere?

A.L.: I definitely intend to continue in politics over the next few years. I want to work on curtailing our carbon footprint while there is still time and making society more resilient. That means restoring a spirit of solidarity, a sense of community and persevering in reducing inequality, which is a cancer for our social cohesion. Large-scale action is needed if we want to avoid a situation, come 15, 20, 30 years’ time, in which we regret not having done enough and have to make very difficult decisions. Personally, regret frightens me because it is indelible: it can gnaw away at you right up until the end of your life...

If I could send one message to my generation, it would be to be aware of the freedoms and the potential you have as individuals. We are a generation prone to self-censorship and risk averse . Yet there are so many good, constructive, useful opportunities. To create them, you have to continually learn, explore, expand your horizons by meeting new people, travelling, seeking out diverse experiences, particularly through volunteering. All of these will help to restore your faith in community and to make you realise that no one can accomplish anything alone. 

Above all, I would tell my generation not to abandon politics. I invite young people to get involved at all levels of politics, business and the nonprofit sector, particularly where most power is concentrated. I would encourage anyone who has the freedom to do so to champion a cause and to act on behalf of others. Consider all the people who do not have that freedom and ask yourself what they would expect of you, as a young student or graduate of Sciences Po, with all your energy and skills. Many people do not have the freedoms you have and are stuck in conditions that prevent them from acting.

I understand the temptation felt by some who, out of a kind of resignation, end up turning back to nature or limiting themselves to action on a very local scale. All activism is useful but not all has the same impact. If we abandon large-scale collective action, how can we hope to deal with the crises to come? Unfortunately, the disillusion many feel towards politics is increasingly widespread and commonplace. But we do not have a choice: we have to roll up our sleeves, get stuck in, work together and share ideas. We need to take power where it is takeable and use it intelligently. Our institutions are not going anywhere, and if we do not fight for a seat in the Assemblée Nationale, someone else will take it for us. It will likely be someone with less virtuous intentions.

There is a lot to do. We are in a kind of pre-war period with global warming on the horizon: the best way to tackle it is to think ahead and stick together.

The Sciences Po Editorial Team

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