The Birth Lottery



It’s midnight May 3rd under a full moon at the end of our first full day at sea. At noon we began three and a half hours of bringing 369 people on board who before our arrival were praying for their lives without pumps, lifejackets, or any realistic hope of staying afloat or alive much longer. All have received medical treatment as needed, water, clothing, food, and a blanket for the night. The search-and rescue (SAR) team is now painstakingly ferrying another 110 people from a precarious inflatable raft to a diverted oil-tanker. The wind and current have cruelly carried the fragile migrant craft far away from the much larger vessel, which only an hour ago loomed over us as a 16-meter steel wall. We’re standing by on the Phoenix with searchlights on the scene, glad there are no critically-ill aboard the inflatable. There’s nothing more I can do except try to get some rest before my deck-watch begins at four.

Photo © Ikram N'gadi/MSF, May 3, 2015

I need to make something quite clear right now, before sleep. Whatever the reasons these people began their journeys from Eritrea, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Syria, or wherever, they have in many cases since come through a kind of hell I do not like to think about. I simply won in the birth lottery, and they lost. Embarking in those very dubious craft to traverse the Mediterranean, they were prepared to risk death over the life they’d come to know, through no fault of their own. They have stories to break your heart, and are some of my heroes.

I’m back now, trying to keep up on this blog. All’s well. We’re northbound en route to Pozalla, Sicily, in calm seas. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has people there also, and we’re confident of appropriate follow-up for the particularly vulnerable people we’ve identified so far.

May 1st was open-house in harbour, a long time ago. It seemed that every conceivable photographic device and journalist was in evidence from Google glasses actuated by a wink to shoulder-hefted television cameras, from freelancers to Reuters. To their great interest I spent a scorching morning with a paintbrush, redefining the blurry stencil-sprayed edges of the MSF symbol and script in English and Arabic, on the rear port side of the Phoenix. The prime minister of Malta inspected our clinic. The Schiebel cam-copter people displayed their sleek machines on the rear heli-deck. An Italian diplomat showed up, a good thing since all rescues, transfers of rescued people to other vessels, or disembarkations to land are strictly per instructions of the Italian Marine Rescue Coordination Centre.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) director explained his hope that trans-mediterranean migration would come to be seen as a global, not strictly European or more accurately southern European responsibility. Note that Britain disgracefully accepted a total of merely 143 Syrian refugees in 2014; we have well more than twice that many rescued people on our 40-meter ship right now.

The Phoenix and the MSF flag finally sailed out of safe harbor at noon on May 2nd. Journalists hustled onto an accompanying boat to record the event, and a helicopter made several overview passes as we entered open water. This mission obviously saves lives and relieves human suffering. It also inevitably and not to be disingenuous about it, intentionally makes a political statement that European governments are using the mediterranean as a border fence, very deliberately not providing adequate SAR capability in the waters they are responsible for by international convention and any standard of human decency. Safe, legal ways must be made available for these justifiably desperate "boat people" to apply for asylum without risking their lives in this way.