A desperate sea dash for a better life

By Rosemarie North comment

Refugees earlier this month wait aboard a partially punctured rubber boat to be assisted, during a rescue operation on the Mediterranean Sea near Libya. Photo / AP
Refugees earlier this month wait aboard a partially punctured rubber boat to be assisted, during a rescue operation on the Mediterranean Sea near Libya. Photo / AP

It's 4.30am and the shipping radio is already crackling.

Metallic voices announce four sightings that could be boatloads of people in trouble in the southern Mediterranean Sea.

Around us, flickering lights signal other ships. On the horizon, a dull glow of Libyan lights reflected in pollution or cloud. We're close enough that my computer thinks I'm in Libya, but outside its 20km territorial waters.

The Libyan coast is where traffickers launch overloaded and underpowered boats at about midnight. There's no captain, no navigation, not enough fuel or water. Almost no one wears a lifejacket; no one can swim. Some people think the Mediterranean is a river they can cross by dawn.

It's impossible to know how many die but the UNHCR calls it the deadliest year on record. No one deserves to die like that.

We're on search and rescue ship the Responder in the target zone, where people lucky enough still be afloat and alive arrive on dodgy inflatable dinghies or wooden boats before or at dawn.

The Responder is a partnership between the Italian Red Cross and MOAS, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, an independent charity. MOAS experts from the UK, US and Malta do the rescuing. People from Italy, New Zealand, Romania and Switzerland in the international Red Cross or IFRC take care of survivors on board, with medical checks and first aid, water, food and thermal blankets at night.

When you first see an overloaded dingy in a spotlight, your stomach turns. Sometimes the grey hulls almost fold in half, with the bow pointing at the sky.

Passengers should be scrunched down inside the boats, braced against the inflated side. Instead, they perch on top, legs straddling the sides, one foot in the boat, one in the waves. The dinghies end up looking like giant millipedes, their backs undulating in the waves, a creature with dozens of legs, each belonging to a son, niece, mum, plumber, teacher, construction worker, school child.

On this morning, we began as usual, by sending a small rescue craft to a crowded dinghy. MOAS rescuers calmed people down and tossed them lifejackets. They took batches of people on the rescue craft, and brought them back to the main vessel. Children and women first.

Then someone spotted another rubber boat, perhaps 200m away. The MOAS rescue craft crew, knowing that everyone on the first boat had a life jacket and that the boat would hold them, headed over to check out the second sighting.

This dinghy was in trouble. Some of its rubber compartments had deflated. A wooden structure, riveted into its hull, had broken, giving the boat an odd shape. The sea bears switched their attention to rescuing its passengers.

Within two hours, we'd safely rescued 273 people including three babies and four kids aged 6 to 9, from three death traps.

One boy, all alone, told us he was 5. He looked about 9. Still far too young to be alone on such a journey. We gave him dry clothes. Later he offered me some of his precious biscuits.

Passengers were from the Middle East, North Africa, Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa. The Red Cross team checked everyone for dehydration or other urgent health needs.

All passengers will be taken to Italy where the Red Cross will give them shoes, a hot meal, a phone call to their families. The Italian authorities will guide them through the process of applying for refugee status. It's likely many of them will not qualify, and be deported.

On board, everyone was exhausted. Some collapsed on the deck. Some cried. Many looked bewildered. Some thanked us. Some thanked God.

Some were keen to talk. They told the Red Cross they'd been in holding cells before the trip, beaten and kept without water; they showed us welts on their ankles from shackles, cracked lips from being whacked. Others spoke about long journeys, their vehicles breaking down in the desert, drivers digging their own graves, men urinating into bottles to give women and children some liquid - and then escape.

Some talked about the dressmaking business they hoped to build up in Europe after conflict in Libya made it impossible there.

Everyone had a compelling reason to leave home. A reason that would make you or me think about leaving. No peace, no food, no future.


- Rosemarie North is a New Zealander working with the IFRC. She tweets about her work at @RosemarieNorth

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