The phone wakes me early on the morning of my departure. I’m heading for Malta, to join up with the MSF/MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) team on the Phoenix, rescuing people attempting to cross the Mediterranean in leaky, un-seaworthy vessels.
It seems that yesterday yet another leaky, unseaworthy vessel was the cause of another tragedy.
“We may have to reroute you to Rome,” John, our logistician in Malta, tells me. “The team has gone out on a rescue, a big one, over 40 dead... we’re not sure yet where the boat will land.”
I think of the terror the migrants must have felt as their boat filled with water, or capsized – I haven’t heard the full story yet. And I know that only desperation would have forced them onto that perilous journey across the deep waters of the Med. Desperation with their lives in Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya: war-torn, anarchic, little-hope places.
I think back to my time working with MSF with Syrian refugees in Turkey, in 2012. Medically-trained Syrian refugees were staffing our clinic, and I remember the stories they told me. Of the bombs falling daily near their homes, of friends and family members killed, of there being no choice but to escape. Of exhausting, terrifying treks to the border, one with a pregnant wife and small child, all with no possessions but a small suitcase.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to my country,” I remember one consultant, a very qualified, highly educated man in his 50s, telling me. He and the others are just some of the four million people who have had to flee Syria to save their lives, most of whom will now have been living in overcrowded refugee camps in the countries bordering Syria for three years. Maybe some of them are now attempting to reach Europe in the hope of a better, safer life.
Or maybe some of the refugees from sub-Saharan Africa I met in the aftermath of the Libyan conflict, in 2011, have been attempting the crossing. They came from countries such as Somalia or Eritrea, had been working in Libya and forced to flee by the conflict. Unable to return to their home countries, they were stuck in refugee camps. They, too, told horrifying stories of imprisonment, beatings, even torture in Libya.
I think back to my time in South Sudan where people, bombed out of their homes in Blue Nile State in Sudan, had trekked through the bush for up to three months, living on berries, arriving in South Sudan so dehydrated and malnourished that dozens just died on the side of the road.
It is with the plight of these refugees in mind, these people whose faces I remember so well, who I think of as I set off on this trip to help rescue yet more hundreds, thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, are forced to leave their countries.
We have a humanitarian duty to help them. Not just in saving their lives in the Mediterranean, but in helping to provide a secure future for them. What right have we to lock ourselves safely up in 'we’re all right Jack' mode in Fortress Britain?
I don’t know exactly what lies ahead of me. I hope I’m prepared, physically and mentally, for this trip. I’ve done a fairly arduous sea-safety training, which entailed me leaping from a height into water, dressed in a survival suit, and clambering into a wobbly life-raft. But I don’t think anything – not even seeing people dying miserably from Ebola – can prepare one for finding 52 people dead in the hold from asphyxiation, as my colleagues did recently.
But I’m glad that I can be there to help these desperate people with my medical skills in whatever way I can.