We’re suddenly coming up on the half-way mark of this particular mission and even a week-long scheduled vacation. The flow of people will continue in our team’s brief absence, but finally now with many other ships and people stationed in the central Mediterranean to help out. I’ve actually booked flights to meet Paula, who’s just finished seven weeks nursing work in Nunavut, for a few days. I wonder how it will feel to zoom through borders and to touch home, after having been so deeply immersed in migration concerns for the past three months.
I’ve been meeting some notable people on this mission, as history unfolds. Of course everybody matters “same-same”, but some stand out.
Certainly my MSF colleagues, the Phoenix crew, and the two MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) SAR (Search and Rescue) technicians on board the Phoenix deserve mention. These latter two are both otherwise retired after working for twenty-seven years together in the Maltese armed forces, and you want them involved in any high-seas rescue scenario that you’re part of.
Next up, the other day while in port I had the privilege of chatting with Rupert Neudeck, organizer of the “Cap Anamur” boat-based effort which in the late 70‘s provided medical assistance to over 35,000 refugees and saved the lives of 11,300 in the South China Sea. At one point about ten thousand people lined the harbour in Hamburg to welcome a boatload of these refugees. (Can you imagine such a scene in New York or Halifax today?)
At 76 Rupert is still at it, having organized vocational training for migrants marooned in Mauritania, after the sea route to the Canary Islands and a land route to a Spanish enclave on the African continent were rendered impassable. Some graduates have apparently returned to their countries of origin with their new skills, or made a reasonable life of it in Mauritania. Thank-you, Rupert!
Rupert Neudeck, left, and me.
Then there’s an Eritrean fellow who comes to mind from a MOAS rescue on June 29th, a very mixed boat of fifteen nationalities. This man was blind in one eye due to a nasty injury to one side of his face, and couldn’t straighten one leg enough to stand on. He initially and improbably informed us that all this was from a soccer injury four months prior. Subsequently in a more private moment with a friend at his side, he told the truth of being wounded in a truck rollover which killed 23 others, while crossing the Sahara. His companions must have largely carried him thereafter and on the final hour-and-a-half trek to the boat-boarding point, as he could by no means walk unassisted. And as often as not this fantastic fellow would flash a smile and a thumbs-up when I’d survey the group and meet his gaze.
We had on board from that rescue a bewildering variety of nationalities of people from Bangladesh (142), Sudan (47), Eritrea (36), Somalia (30), Syria (25), Morocco (21), Nigeria (16), Pakistan and Ethiopia (9 each), Ghana (7), Togo (3), and Palestine, South Sudan, Libya, and Burkina Faso (1 each). After interacting with them for a while the whole notion of labeling people according to the country they formerly called home began to seem a bit surreal to me.
There was a very human mix of personalities also, not always seeing eye-to-eye on how many inches of deck space each was entitled to. As the tension settled somebody gave a long impassioned description that was easy to grasp without understanding Arabic. Judging from his explicit gesticulations and facial expressions, it involved much beating, shooting, aerial bombing, destruction and bewilderment, in this case in Syria.
That particular boatload truly was very much a rescue rather than an interception, with all haste made to get people onto the Phoenix and the wooden craft listing and rolling alarmingly to one side in just a very gentle swell. We’d simply come across it early that morning without any notification from the RCC (Rescue Coordination Centre) in Rome. About a meter of water was sloshing around inside by the time the last person was taken off, and one could see light through gaps between the planks below waterline.
One of the SAR techs confessed to me that despite the gentle seas, of all the rescues so far this year he’d been really frightened by it, with about 350 people on deck and below. When one of the rescued families later laughingly lined me up with their small children to snap a picture, I felt a cold chill and had to blink hard at the thought of what could easily have been empty spaces around me. Although medically we haven’t had many severe situations to deal with, to date, the possibility is never far from my mind, with many more people en route.
I can hardly believe the numbers. Compared to 2014, in the period of January to May inclusive this year two and a half times as many people have entered Europe “illegally”. Looking back to February one can see the early trend, on all fronts. To July 1st, the number crossing the central Mediterranean has increased by 80% compared to last year. As of this year’s World Refugee Day, June 20th, there were almost 60 million people displaced from their homes by violence, poverty, persecution, and systematic violations of their human rights. In absolute terms there haven’t been that many such, since the end of the second world war. Of the 7.2 billion people alive on this planet today, that’s 1 in 120.
If one hasn’t given it some careful thought or met some of the people involved, those numbers might seem overwhelming or just faceless statistics. There are surely no easy solutions, but meanwhile I’ll just continue with the persons in front of me, one by one in one hundred and twenty.