‘If we don’t go, how many will die?’

In May, AFP's deputy bureau chief in Rome Fanny Carrier spent a week aboard the Aquarius, one of a small armada of ships that are rescuing migrants all along the Libyan coast. This is the first of a three-part series on the voyage.

Aboard the Aquarius in the Mediterranean --  The Aquarius has a rendez-vous. We don’t yet know exactly with whom, or when, but we have a vague idea of where. A long stretch of sea along the Libyan shore.

In a previous life this big orange boat worked for the German coast guard. Then it went into the oil prospecting trade, criss-crossing the ocean from Nigeria to the Arctic. But since February, it has been hired by a non-governmental group, SOS Mediterranee, for quite a different purpose -- to save lives. It is one of a small armada of humanitarian boats who are at work in the Mediterranean as you read these words, rescuing the thousands of migrants who leave Libya’s shores in rubber dinghies trying to reach Europe.

(AFP / Gabriel Bouys)

After leaving Trapani, its port of call in northwestern Sicily, the boat slowly circles the island before heading towards Libya’s Tripoli. On this night, Aquarius’s passengers could be forgiven for forgetting the purpose of the trip. The captain has ordered a barbeque on deck, so the Filipino chef is grilling away, the Ghanaian sailors have taken care of the sound system, the sunset has splashed gold onto the sky and the waves.

We get acquainted with the three teams onboard with whom we’ll be sharing this boat for the foreseeable future. There are the six rescuers from SOS Mediterranee, whose task will be to pull migrants from the water; there are six staff from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to give them the first aid on board, and there is around a dozen crew to work the boat itself.

The first group consists of people familiar with the sea who don’t have rescue experience but wanted to volunteer their time -- a former sea captain who has become a consultant, an actual captain currently on vacation, a young merchant marine in between trips, a diving instructor who has spent several months on the Greek island of Lesbos, which has seen thousands of migrants arrive in the past year.

The group from MSF is exactly the opposite -- most have never stepped foot on a boat, but have seen misery from all corners of the globe, from Nepal, to South Sudan, with Ebola-affected countries in between.

And then there is the crew -- Ghanaians always in a good mood, reserved Russians and Ukrainians, a Greek worried that all these novices on the boat don’t think of putting on a helmet or wearing shoes on deck. The crew has been hired along with the boat and didn’t choose saving refugees as their mission.

While coming to the aid of a boat in distress at sea is a moral and legal obligation, merchant marine giants help migrants in distress begrudgingly. Their boats are rarely equipped to come to the rescue of a rubber dinghy, a rescue means lost time and therefore money lost for the company, and the sailors are wary of the migrants and any health problems they may be bringing on board. This uneasiness, and on some boats outright hostility, of the crew had presented a major challenge on other humanitarian boats. Luckily the situation on the Aquarius is different.

A man watches the sea with binoculars during a rescue operation of migrants and refugees of the Aquarius (AFP / Gabriel Bouys)

The next morning, I go up to the deck to talk to the captain, Alexander Moroz, a 45-year-old Belarussian with a dry sense of humor. Captain Alex has been working at sea since the age of 15 and has been working for Kempel, the company that owns Aquarius, since 2009. Every year he alternates -- two or three months at sea and then two or three months at his house some 80 kilometers from the capital Minsk, where his wife runs a business and his 24-year-old son is finishing studying architecture.  Unlike the rest of the crew, he actually volunteered for this mission. “Maybe it was time to do something good,” he tells me in his heavily-Slavic-accented English.

As we talk, the various radios linking the numerous rescue boats start to crackle with the day’s news.  A boat that left Egypt with maybe as many as 500 people onboard is seen to the south of Puglia, the heel in Italy’s boot. To the west of Tripoli, the Bourbon Argos, a boat hired by MSF, is helping an Irish military boat to save a fishing boat with several hundred migrants onboard. To Tripoli’s east, the Dignity, another MSF-hired boat, is pulling people from three overcrowded rubber dinghies. Twenty minutes later, the Italian coast guard, which coordinates rescue missions in this zone from their office in Rome, joins in -- four rubber dinghies have been sighted to the north of Tripoli. An hour later, the Bourbon Argos captain comes on -- they’re saving one dinghy and have three others in their sights. By the end of the day, the coast guard estimates that some 2,000 migrants have been pulled from various vessels.

Welcome to the Mediterranean in 2016.

The Aquarius still has about 12 hours to sail before it gets to the rescue zone. The teams on board, many of whom are starting a three-week rotation, spend the time by preparing for what lies ahead and familiarizing themselves with the ship. In the afternoon the ship stops so everyone can participate in a rescue training drill, which involves lowering into the water the two rubber boats to be used in the rescue operations. The first is to make the rounds to bring the migrants onto the Aquarius while the second is to remain near the refugees, trying to keep them calm while they wait their turn.

Captain Alex (AFP / Gabriel Bouys)

It’s always an arduous task. The migrants often leave on their voyage at night, to be plucked from the sea the next day, after about eight to 10 hours at sea. But already weakened by the living conditions in Libya, drenched, cold, dehydrated, nauseated by the waves, choking on the fumes from the boat motor, sometimes burned by the fuel, some don’t even survive this far. Add to this the panic that many feel toward the sea. “Most of them don’t know how to swim. The sea for them is like lava for us. Those who fall into the water won’t survive,” Antoine, one of the rescuers on board, tells me.

Everyone is stressed during the drill, as communication turns out to be tricky. After a few hours, the rubber boats are raised back onboard and we continue sailing, everyone crossing their fingers that all will go well tomorrow during the real thing.

As night falls and we approach closer and closer to war-torn Libya, the crew locks all access to the bridge as a security measure. A few weeks ago, armed men boarded a boat chartered by a German non-governmental organization that was patrolling these waters and helping with the rescues. The gunmen left without harming anyone, but since then all rescue boats in the area have upped security. And since then, a military escort is required for any rescue operation within 20 nautical miles of the Libyan shore.

Antoine Laurent, one of the SOS Mediterranee rescuers. (AFP / Gabriel Bouys)

There are plenty of military vessels in these waters -- the Italian Mare Sicuro operation, charged with ensuring the safety of fishermen, rescuers and oil platforms in the area; EU’s Sophia operation, which has been trying, so far in vain, to fight people smugglers; and the Triton operation of Frontex, the EU’s border agency. Combined, these count slightly more than a dozen boats and ships, as wells as planes and helicopters.

It is absolutely forbidden to approach closer than 12 nautical miles of the Libyan shore. Captain Alex tells me of one day when the Aquarius spotted a migrant dinghy in trouble on the other side of this line. It and the other humanitarian boats couldn’t approach it and watched helplessly as several Libyan fishing vessels passed by without stopping. Eventually a tanker, which had permission to enter Libyan waters, plucked the migrants off their vessel and returned to international waters to transfer them to an Italian military ship.

That night, I have trouble falling asleep. I look ahead of us, into the darkness, toward Libya. "There, at this very moment, smugglers are in the process of getting the people who have paid them enormous amounts of money to the coast, to be loaded onto dinghies that often are hardly more solid than beach toys, then take off to the open sea in darkness."

(AFP / Gabriel Bouys)

I wonder whether these people would leave if they weren’t almost certain that they would be picked up by ships like ours? If Aquarius in some way is an accomplice to the human smugglers? But then again, the number of people undertaking the sea journey was as high last year, when there were no rescue boats waiting for them in the open sea.

Before these waters were dotted with various rescue boats, the ships carrying the migrants were less stuffed with their human cargo. They usually carried water, food and fuel, with the goal of reaching Sicily or one of the Italian islands on the way. Today, their goal is to reach international waters and call for help. So the smugglers don’t have to worry about supplies and can use that space to put more people on board.

For Captain Alex, it’s a moot point. “The only question is -- if we don’t go, how many will die,” he says.

To be continued….

This blog was translated from the French by Yana Dlugy in Paris. Read the original here. Read Part 2 of the series here. 

(AFP / Gabriel Bouys)

 

Fanny Carrier