Full Circle

The Phoenix is back in Malta now with one cycle of rescue trips completed, and many lessons being learned. One thousand four hundred and forty one people were rescued. Simon recollects some of these people and reflects on the apalling events across Africa and the Middle East that have prompted their flight.

Perhaps it’s due to some weird interaction of this particular restaurant decor in the basement of a 16th-century building in Valletta, the music on my earphones, and reviewing the past few weeks, partly in preparation for a radio interview later this evening. But there must be something wrong with this glass of fine Prosecco. Each sip seems to well up in my eyes.

The Phoenix is back in Malta now with one cycle of rescue trips completed, and many lessons being learned besides keep your stuff and powder dry. One thousand four hundred and forty one people were rescued. I think about the distressed young man whom we medevaced to a hospital on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and the healthy English-speaking well-educated professional who volunteered to accompany him if necessary. The cliché of impoverished, uneducated, opportunistic “migrants” seeking to take advantage of European hospitality and social services is incorrect. You don’t get into one of these boats if you have any other option. For a reasonable analysis of why some people undertake the risks of a Mediterranean sea-crossing, see: .

The situation is fluid and complex. The European Union is saber-rattling to somehow attack the “smugglers”, which may prove to be easier said than done. A staggering number of people have been affected by events in Africa and western Asia. In Syria alone, some four million refugees have fled the country and more than seven million are displaced within its borders. In Africa, Burundi is boiling with unrest, and Yemen is wracked by violence. South Sudan gained independence in 2011 after decades of trying, but the quarreling of its new leaders has led to fears of catastrophe: Many of those we’ve rescued so far have been fleeing Eritrea, governed by a secretive and repressive regime: Humans...

After disembarkation of people in Augusta, Italy, we discovered about a hundred of our remaining “rescue kits” to be wet with sea-water due to a leaky compartment hatch. These drawstring bags contain two half-liter bottles of water, a cardboard and foil-wrapped package of emergency food providing 2300 calories, a pair of woolen socks, a small white towel, and a light protective coverall. So we bought 500 clothespins and turned the rear decks of the Phoenix into a Guinness-record-contender clothesline network of sodden towels and socks. We stripped the melting cardboard boxes from the foil packages of emergency food rations, finally reassembling the kits and storing them away while sailing south once again.

Back in the international waters north of Libya the Phoenix found a single wooden boat stuffed with 561 people. We first brought 504 on board, and then transferred 97 off to another ship which came to help, as we were too crowded. The remaining 57 were transferred directly from the wooden boat to the other ship. On the long voyage north to Messina, Sicily, out came every remaining pre-assembled rescue kit on board so we could harvest all the emergency food packs from them, of which just ten remained on our arrival. Our fantastic team just shrugged and got on with the job. You have to keep things in perspective.

In Messina I counted out disembarking passengers in groups of five as requested by the Italian authorities. At the end, I got to five and there was just one more fellow waiting patiently. A shared laugh and smiles, and six people walked down the gangway to begin the next leg of their journeys.

Media requests continue, interviews for Canada’s national newspaper and radio, and others. But it’s getting hard to know what to tell them. I keep repeating that there must be safe and legal ways for these people to apply for asylum and immigration to countries around the world, and more search and rescue to prevent deaths at sea. That we’re here to prevent loss of life, treat medical conditions, support dignity, and share our humanity. I could equally well say I think everybody should live and work in constructive peace and harmony forever, starting right now. You start to see the real human problems and the answers aren’t so easy. I don’t know. Perhaps this comment in response to my last blog can say it for me:

Thank you Simon for the work that you do. In the 1970s-early 1980s, my family made three attempts at ocean crossing in fishing boats and rafts such as you describe above. We never made it across the ocean but fortunately found a legal way years later to immigrate to the United States. Many of our friends and neighbors were either rescued by vessels such as MSF, or died at sea. Our family now has three family doctors, two of us dream of working for MSF in rescue missions such as you're doing.

I’ll end with that, for the time being.