Fieldset
Search and rescue: A place of safety

Dr Ayla Emminck recently spent three months on board Geo Barents, an MSF search and rescue vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. She shares her account…

It is Wednesday morning, and we have just finished distributing the food on the deck of the Geo Barents. Music is playing from the speaker and almost 300 young men are cheering, jumping, crying, dancing their pants off. From deep inside their hearts they sing, "moving forward with my eyes closed, …, far from my country, far from my country."

They are celebrating the news that we have been granted a port where they will be able to disembark and start the next chapter of their lives. A place of safety.

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Rescued people on board the Geo Barents look out at the coast of Italy
Rescued people looking out at the coast of Italy, where they have been granted a safe port

Prolonged uncertainty

It is the responsibility of states to assign any ship involved in a rescue a safe port where people can disembark. In recent years, delays in doing this have meant people can be stuck on board for days or even weeks in an unhealthy cocktail of exhaustion, seasickness, prolonged uncertainty and stress.

Why is even a safe haven, a place of safety for people rescued from a boat in distress, not a given?

So the emotion on board right now is so strong it’s tangible. I’m not ashamed of the tears pouring down my face while I’m celebrating with the guys: I too feel the relief, the joy.

Questions without answers

Yet at the same time I feel sadness and frustration.

How is it possible that all these strong, resilient men have been taken, often forcefully, out of their boyhoods?

How is it that they have been forced to leave their homes and to risk their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, on unseaworthy rubber or wooden boats?

How do we live in a world where it is normal that people are risking their lives and the lives of their children simply because they didn’t give in and still have hope?

Why is even a safe haven, a place of safety for people rescued from a boat in distress, not a given?

Why is it so hard to celebrate the arrival of new neighbours, colleagues and friends?

Conflicted

Knowing the horrors of registration procedures, court hearings, nothingness and waiting they have ahead of them, it’s difficult not to feel conflicted about the ecstatic state people around me are getting into.

How do we live in a world where it is normal that people are risking their lives simply because they still have hope?

I wish the world was simpler and I could just embrace this moment of happiness after weeks of hard work and little rest, growing close to the people around me.

A new loss

Upstairs on the women’s deck the news is welcomed with the same intensity. Even before all the translations have been finished, the women burst into applause, singing and dancing. They don’t even need a speaker to turn the party on.

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Hassan, 13 years old, and Ali, 7 years old, are happy to be on the Geo Barents after spending more than 13 hours in a wooden boat adrift
Hassan, 13 years old, and Ali, 7 years old, spent more than 13 hours adrift in a wooden boat before their family was rescued by the Geo Barents team

Yet at the same time other emotions are shared. Children of variable ages immediately group around me and squeeze me tightly. Is it just me or is the joy mixed with fear of the unknown, and sadness for losing this temporary safe space they have just begun to trust?

Some unaccompanied boys, too old to play with the children but too young to be called men, definitely too young to cross deserts and seas alone, spend most of the day in shock. "We want to stay here with you," they tell us. "Please can we stay on the boat?"

The unthinkable "If"

In the last couple of days I have spent most of my time with the women and children, trying to make life on board as normal and homely as possible. Playing card games, drawing, origami, making up new hand clap rhymes that don’t make sense in any language. Pulling children apart when fights arise and rocking them to sleep once they finally get tired and their mothers are resting.

If we had not encountered them on their journey, many of them would have lost their lives at sea...

Whenever there is a silent moment, which is not often, the same thought keeps coming back to my mind. How is this possible? I am surrounded by babies, toddlers, boys and girls. Full of secrets, imaginary stories, cheeky smiles, smart tricks and future dreams.

If we had not encountered them on their journey, many of them would have lost their lives at sea. Others would have been taken back to detention centres in Libya, not knowing if, or when, there would be another chance for escape.

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Read more: Stories from the Mediterranean

Search & Rescue: 'One hour. The fate of hundreds of people. Will we be in time?'

Search & Rescue: Memorial