An Up-Close Look at Refugee Rescues on the Mediterranean

In an exhausting 15-hour operation, a German boat intercepts 24 inflatable rafts carrying African migrants fleeing the Libyan coast for Italy.

ON THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA— As dawn broke, the phone rang on the bridge of the M.S. Sea-Watch 2, a 90-foot fisheries research vessel reborn as a rescue ship. It was the Italian Coast Guard calling about a boat in trouble nearby.

Within minutes Bea Schmidt, a pediatrician from Berlin, and her two-member team were chopping across the waves aboard a smaller rapid-response boat. At 6:18 a.m. they arrived to find an inflatable dinghy stuffed with refugees bound for Europe.

The craft’s starboard bow had collapsed, spilling people overboard and slowly filling the vessel with water. It was sinking.

“We will rescue you all,” Schmidt said, speaking in English.

As she began to distribute life jackets, panic set in.

“Don’t fight. There’s enough for everybody,” Schmidt shouted.

“They are dead, this one. They are dead,” someone on board yelled.

Schmidt started to sing in an attempt to instill calm. “Sing a song. Sing a song of your country,” she implored, but her request was lost in a melee of shrieking.

For refugees from Africa fleeing conflict or simply searching for a better life, the Mediterranean route from Libya to Sicily is one of the primary paths to Europe. This year about 270,000 migrants have traveled to Europe by sea.

Even though vessels like the Sea-Watch 2 ply the international waters off the Libyan coast, the crossing remains dangerous. Nearly 3,200 people have died this year, about 20 percent more than in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. In one deadly week in May, the United Nations refugee agency estimated 880 people drowned. Through the end of last month, about 117,000 migrants had been rescued on the Mediterranean.

Earlier this year, I joined a 15-hour Sea-Watch operation that rescued more than 24 inflatable boats. The first appeared on the ship’s radar screen a little after 3 a.m., looking like a blue caterpillar with a green head, meandering northward out of Libyan territorial waters. Soon, a shapeless object was discernible on the waves, silhouetted against the moonlight rippling on the water.

When the ship’s searchlight swept across the 36-foot boat, its flank glowed a dull gray and revealed dozens of legs dangling over the side, making it look a bit like an actual caterpillar.

Ingo Werth, head of mission on the vessel, addressed the refugees aboard with a megaphone: “Good morning, friends. We are doctors from Germany. Please stay very, very calm, and everything works out fine. Don’t be nervous, just stay calm. We will help you.”

Returning to the ship’s bridge, he called the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Rome. “We found a rubber boat in this position. It’s completely crowded,” he said.

The rescue coordinators in Rome labeled the encounter Event 651.

Following three peals of the ship’s alarm (long, short, long), the crew members assembled on the foredeck for their first ever nighttime rescue. Werth instructed a four-person team to lower the smaller rescue boat.

The craft, called Tender One, approached the floundering boat. “Hello! We are from Germany. We are doctors from Germany,” Schmidt told them, attempting to calm the group. Switching to French, she said, “Reste tranquille, reste tranquille.”

The team distributed life jackets and slowly ferried the refugees, a half dozen at a time, to the main ship.

Schmidt, having worked for years an emergency pediatrician, said she was mentally prepared for the worst. She’s a keen sailor and was the lead medic on board, but had no experience with seaborne search-and-rescue operations.

“I just thought it was terrible that people drowned while they go for a life with a better future,” she told me. “So very spontaneously, one evening, I just decided I go.”

The spindly mother of a 24-year-old named Charlotte, Schmidt has a gold-plated adventurous streak. In her youth she walked Peru’s Inca Trail during the violent Shining Path rebellion, and she traveled through Burma at the height of the junta’s brutality.

“I did not think about danger when I was young,” she said.

She immediately contacted Sea-Watch and several months later was bouncing across a moonlit seascape toward a refugee boat in peril.

Charlotte wasn’t worried about her mother’s impulsiveness. Schmidt’s sister and several friends weren’t so enthusiastic. “They were very upset and didn’t want me to go because it’s very dangerous to go so near the Libyan coast,” she said, referring to the Islamic State insurgency in the country.

They gave her a toy pig and an angel for good luck, which resided on the bridge with the crew’s menagerie of other lucky charms, tumbling around as the ship pitched and rolled for the duration of the two-week trip.

Most of the 15 crew members, including Werth, were from Hamburg, Germany, where Werth runs a garage with his brother and a friend. He’s a rosy-faced amateur yachtsman with his collar forever popped, a silvering quiff, and a tendency to squeeze your arm when he talks, conferring a comforting sense of conspiracy.

The crew included an art therapist, a firefighter medic, an offshore wind-power safety officer, and a merchant seaman. Werth was quick to play down the idea that his plucky team was doing anything heroic. “It’s a very normal crew, very normal people,” he said. “Nobody of us is a hero. We just do our job, and the job we want to do in our holidays or our time off—to support people who are not so lucky, like we are.”

Those unlucky ones now number about 65.3 million people around the world, roughly the population of the United Kingdom, who have fled their homes, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. This is the highest level of displacement in recorded history.

In the aftermath of the death of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the country splintered, becoming a major corridor for migration from Africa to Italy. Hundreds of boats sank, while Europe’s politicians mostly shrugged.

In late 2013 the Italian Navy set up a search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, rescuing 150,000 people. But Europe’s leaders refused to fund it, replacing it with Operation Triton, aimed more at border protection than search and rescue.

Médecins Sans Frontières stepped in, followed last year by Sea-Watch, a nonprofit based in Berlin, and this year by Sea-Eye, another small private rescue vessel.

Just after 6:30 a.m. there were six inflatable dinghies on the horizon. Two and a half hours later their ranks had swelled to over a dozen. A couple of aid ships run by Médecins Sans Frontières arrived, alongside a warship from Italy.

As the long morning gave way to afternoon, more boats arrived and a sort of waterborne refugee camp took shape, with a population of more than 2,500.

On board the Sea-Watch ship, the decks filled with people, nursing bottles of water, keeping warm under silver-gold space blankets distributed by the crew.

It takes warships 30 hours to complete the journey to Italy. By comparison, no inflatable boat from Libya has ever successfully made landfall in Europe.

Some of those aboard had understood the risks of attempting to navigate the roughly 300 miles of water between Libya and Sicily. Many had not. Smugglers had told one group that the journey would last a couple of hours, that it would be like “crossing a river.”

Jackson Adilux was cradling her baby, her only possession, in the ship’s small clinic. She had been a hairdresser back in Nigeria but had fled with her husband several months ago because she couldn't find a job. She wore a long-sleeved pink t-shirt, and her hair was pulled into cornrows that were beginning to fray.

“I came to Europe for many things. I came for my children’s future and to work,” she told me, knowing that her rescue by Sea-Watch would guarantee her passage. “All is about money. I want to take care of my family.”

Versions of her story were on the lips of everybody I interviewed: They were gambling everything for a chance to escape something. Although there were many people fleeing conflicts such as in Sudan’s eastern Darfur region, or government persecution in places like Eritrea, the overwhelming majority said they were simply seeking a better life, the opportunity to offer their children a first-rate education, or a brighter economic future.

During her stay aboard the Sea-Watch ship, Adilux assisted Schmidt by breastfeeding two babies who had been temporarily separated from their mothers and were refusing sugar solution.

That afternoon Adilux stepped off the Sea-Watch ship and onto an Italian rescue vessel that would take her to Italy. She waved and mouthed a thank-you to the crew.

Shortly afterward I helped carry off the boat the body of the woman who had died. Her elbows pointed rigidly outward as though trying to give herself extra room in the body bag. She was from Ghana. That’s all anyone knew.

Late in the afternoon a group of small Libyan fishing boats joined the flotilla, lurking just outside the ring of rescue ships.

After each inflatable boat was evacuated, the Italian Navy popped most of them, but they usually remained afloat. The Libyans then rushed in to salvage their prize: the 40-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor.

(Days later the Sea-Watch crew would spray-paint an inflatable boat “RESCUED,” only to see it return with more refugees less than 24 hours later. It confirmed a suspicion that these “engine fishermen,” as the rescuers call them, are in league with the smugglers, or smugglers themselves.)

For many of the crew, the engine fishermen were a palpable reminder of the moral peculiarity of the situation and their own uncomfortable role in it. “We’ve just become a ferry service,” one member of the crew said, half jokingly.

The aid community has, to some degree, become part of the smuggling system.

Most migrant vessels are picked up by the rescue fleet shortly after they leave Libya’s territorial waters, 12 nautical miles offshore. Some capsize or break apart. Many, it must be assumed, are never found.

“I think it would be much safer to go to Libya, pick up the people and take them to the Italian shore. It would be much safer. You wouldn’t lose one life,” Werth said. “It’s a ridiculous game.”

It’s a complex issue without obvious answers, beyond fixing the Libyan state and providing migrants and refugees with safe legal alternatives to reach Europe. The UN refugee agency has urged countries to take more people by organized channels, including resettlement, work or study programs, family reunions, and humanitarian visas.

At the lofty level of European parliaments, it’s easier to overlook the human toll of policy decisions. At sea level there’s moral clarity.

“As seamen we have a tradition of trying to rescue anyone in trouble,” said John Castle, a merchant seaman and veteran Greenpeace activist who was the captain of the Sea-Watch ship. “If there are people drowning in the water, you try to rescue them. That’s the first thing. And afterwards we can try to work out how to deal with the bigger problem.”

Hereward Holland is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in London. You can see more of his work on the web, Instagram, and Twitter.

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