Search & Rescue: ‘We’re an ambulance service on the sea’

Haydn is a project coordinator in one of MSFs emergency teams.

Haydn blogs about the work of the team, and about his most recent posting to the MV Aquarius, a search & rescue vessel MSF operates in the Mediterranean Sea, in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE. 

I wasn’t sure about the boat. I get sea sick. But I’m part of an MSF emergency team, so I go where I’m needed.

The emergency team is a group of medics and coordinators that’s ready to go out and respond to the biggest emergencies at the drop of the hat.

We work fast. It’s a different way of thinking to other projects. The pace is higher, things need to happen and they need to happen now. If we need to hire a plane we do it, because the need is there and it’s huge.

The team use binoculars to search for boats in distress

Photo: Alva White / MSF

I’m what they call a project coordinator. It means I’m responsible for the entire project. I work with the medical team leader to look at the needs of the people in the area and make sure the resources are in place to meet them. I manage the security situation, the staffing, the negotiations, and I oversee the logistics.

We define an emergency as a massive deviation from what’s normal. On my first ever assignment with MSF, way before I joined the emergency team, I was a logistician in South Sudan, and on that project we went from seeing 30-40 people with malaria every week, to seeing  around 1,400. That’s an emergency. So nurses from the emergency team arrived and they focused only on the malaria, working to bring it under control.

Some people don’t have the opportunity to say no, even when they can see the boats are dangerous

We don’t just work in countries where MSF already has projects – the emergency team managers look at global trends, and if they see something they don’t like the look of, we go in to explore what’s happening. This year we’ve been in the horn of Africa because of the very high rates of malnutrition there, we’re looking at north Nigeria for the same reason.

At the moment our team is supporting projects in Yemen, northern Syria, Libya, and the Mediterranean. Which means the boat.

Boat full of people being rescued

Photo: Alva White / MSF

And actually, the boat was good. It was bloody hard work at times, but everywhere is if you’re doing your job properly. I learned a lot. It was a very different environment to work in, but some of the issues are the same: do we have enough blankets, are there enough toilets? On the boat, we’re there to hook people out of the water and make them safe. It doesn’t matter who they are, why they’re there, it doesn’t matter.

 It doesn’t matter who they are, why they’re there 

I did my first ever live interview on the boat. The journalist from the BBC asked me ‘are you a pull factor?’ They meant – does the fact that we’re here make people more likely to attempt the crossing? But we’re an ambulance service on the sea, that’s how I look at it. Most people attempting the crossing don’t even know we’re here, but even if they did -do you cross the road without looking because you know ambulances exist?

And that idea – of ‘pull factors’ – it really undermines the fact that a lot of the people we’re rescuing, they’ve left because they don’t have a choice; because of the traffickers some of them don’t have the opportunity to say no, even when they can see the boats are dangerous.

They want to flee different forms of persecution. Some of them are trying to make a better life for themselves – maybe they’re from West Africa that has been decimated by ebola. Their entire country is slowly trying to rebuild itself but it’s going to take ages. Maybe they’re from somewhere else – East Africa, Horn of Africa, it doesn’t matter – but where they live there’s no opportunities, there’s abject poverty, there’s insecurity. So some people are trying to get a better life for their family away from all of that . And then some people are trying to get their family back together – because some of them are in Europe and some of them aren’t and they’re separated.

Haydn shakes hands with one of the people who have been rescued

Photo: Alva White / MSF

It doesn’t matter the reason they’re leaving.

But a lot of people haven’t thought it all the way through, because there’s no way for them to really know what it’s going to be like. The next thing they know, they’re being held in Libya working off their debts or waiting for their family to pay for passage.

Then they get thrown on a boat with probably no food and water, a crappy little boat with enough fuel to get you 40 miles, when the journey is about 320. There’s a point when that decision-making has been completely taken away. There are reports of people being forced onto the boats.

I’ve finished on the Aquarius now. It was a three-month assignment. I’m waiting to get a visa for South Sudan – things have flared up there, and there’s a medical coordinator from the emergency team already there.

I’m hoping they won’t need me until I’ve had a holiday with my girlfriend though, because my girlfriend will kill me. Idiots with guns I can deal with. I can stand in front of them and know I can talk my way out of anything. An angry girlfriend though…