Search and rescue: "I’ve never blogged before, but I can’t help but share what I’m seeing here"
Mark has recently joined the team on the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated jointly by MSF / Doctors without Borders and SOS MEDITERRANEE. Here he blogs about the team's work in the Mediterranean.
I’ve never blogged before. It doesn’t come naturally to me as I tend to be a private person. But I can’t help share what I’m seeing here.
This movement of people is insane. After god knows how long travelling overland, through the desert, through incredible hardship, trying for a better life or just pushed progressively north due to inhospitable politics, security, or economics, they arrive in Libya on some shore, basically stateless.
Maybe they’re seeing the sea for the first time.
Maybe they’ve been cast away from some migrant detention centre, somewhere in Libya.
The thin plastic rafts crammed with desperate people don’t stand a chance of getting across
And they push off into this massive body of water, an abyss really, in some lousy rubber raft with a little motor. There might have been a time when the goal was to direct the boats to Europe, but the smugglers don’t seem to aim for that now. The thin plastic rafts they cram desperate people into don’t stand a chance of getting across.
This raft today was full of water. One hundred and thirty people soaked and shivering, some sick, with nothing but the wet clothes on their back.
Yesterday, on our first rescue since I arrived, I was alarmed that we were throwing all their clothes away. They didn't protest, just put on the jumpsuits we gave them. No wallet, no documents, nothing.
Some people are covered in fuel so they have to strip down while a couple of white guys shower them off to prevent fuel burns. I can't fathom what they're feeling: fear, hope, desperation. Off to another unwelcoming foreign land. There's got to be plenty of hope with them, but probably mostly desperation.
The call comes to transfer them to another ship. We do this by shuttling them over to the other ship on the small boats we use for rescues. We're all on deck, cheery, saying “good luck” and “bon voyage” - I'm just... well I don't know what I’m thinking but it's striking. The contrasts in this kind of work are always striking, but I was more taken aback today.
And there they are back down the ladder; back into our little boats, back into the dark foreboding water. Off to the big grey navy ship and god knows where. This for me will likely be the resounding image: the exhausted, forlorn refugees compliantly descending the ladder in the dead of night, back into the sea from which they were saved.
It is very dramatic. And it’s cold, plenty cold for the refugees strewn about the deck with limited protection. We’re working on that.
Tonight we transferred all 150 guests to that Italian navy ship so we're empty again. That’s good – it means we can stay in the rescue zone longer to pick up more people.
They had 720 on the ship last summer when it was calmer and possible to fill the bow deck. We can't do that now with the rough winter seas. We'll probably max out at under 500 guests on board. In any case we pack in as many people as we can.*
* N.B. Shortly after Mark wrote this post, the team on MV Aquarius rescued 785 people - the most they have ever had on board - MSF