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A day at sea - saving lives in the Mediterranean

In partnership with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Italian Red Cross and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) patrol the Mediterranean, trying to find migrant vessels, save lives and remind the world that too many people are dying at sea.

Wednesday January 25, 2017

responder boat saving lives in the Mediterranean
Swiss Red Cross nurse, Nicole Rähle, on mission for the IFRC, takes care of a recently rescued boy. Photo: Kenny Karpov/IFRC

It starts before dawn with a report on the radio. There's a boat in international waters about 12 nautical miles from Libya. The Topaz Responder, a 51-metre-long vessel custom-built for this task, goes looking.

On board are search-and-rescue specialists from Malta, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, working for the independent charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), and an emergency medical team managed by the Italian Red Cross.

Based out of Malta, MOAS does the rescuing, using two smaller, high-speed rescue vessels on board the Topaz Responder that can be launched rapidly. (The two boats are named Aylan and Ghalip, in honour of the Kurdi brothers whose deaths off the coast of Turkey shocked the world in 2015.) Once people are on board, a team of four people from the IFRC under an Italian Red Cross team coordinator takes over with medical checks, first aid, food, water and shiny insulating 'space' blankets at night.

A deadly panic

In this case, the Topaz Responder launches the Ghalip. Its searchlight illuminates a sickening sight. Out of the darkness looms a big grey inflatable boat. More than 100 people straddle the edges, one foot in the waves, the other inside. Still more people hunch on the floor in-between.

The men, women and children have paid huge sums to embark on this inflatable rubber boat, launched around midnight, and they are frankly lucky to have made it this far. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 2016 is the deadliest year on this route. Despite thermal imaging, radar and other methods of searching, people on this boat are fortunate to be spotted.

The rescuers on the Ghalip tell people to be calm. They begin tossing life jackets to the boat's passengers. Most people cannot swim.

But there is a problem. There is a toxic smell. High-octane fuel is leaking from the boat's engine and mixing with sea water. Passengers are inhaling it and it is intoxicating them. Some of them faint.

A woman in the rubber boat holds up a tiny baby in a white bodysuit, perhaps hoping to draw attention.
There is panic and yelling. People tumble or jump into the water, even though they cannot swim.

MOAS rescue swimmers plunge into the sea to save as many as they can, hauling people on to the deck of the Topaz Responder. In a flash, three babies are handed up.

After a scramble, the team counts 134 survivors, including 99 men, 29 women and 6 children - including six-month-old twins and an eight-month-old baby. Tragically, seven people lost their lives. Their bodies are taken to the Topaz Responder's morgue.

'Prepared for anything'

Almost immediately, there's a call to attend another rescue. This one is text book. The team brings on board 22 passengers from a second rubber boat. And then a third one with 27 people. The pace is hectic.

As soon as possible, the Italian Red Cross medical team gives people medical checks and first aid. Most people are shaken but not sick. But two men with severe injuries from the toxic fuel are evacuated by the Italian coastguard to hospital. One is in agony. He has inhaled so much fuel it has damaged his airway. Two days later, the team hears he died in hospital.

Nurse Nicole Rähle, a Swiss Red Cross nurse on mission for the IFRC, has experience with mass casualty events and emergencies on land, but never at sea.

"You have to be prepared for a mass casualty incident and handle it in very difficult circumstances," she says. "It's the timing but also the space, which is very limited on a ship.

"You have to be prepared for anything. The people on board can be perfectly healthy or very sick due to dehydration, gasoline inhalation, burns or crush injuries from overcrowding.

"We are just three medical people, a doctor and two nurses for maybe 350 people or more. So you have to think quickly, adapt quickly and be prepared to change strategy several times per rescue."

Later, the Topaz Responder takes on board 171 passengers transferred from two other rescue ships patrolling in the area. One man is transferred to another ship to be reunited with his wife. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, which coordinates the rescues and transfers, asks the ship to sail the 351 passengers to Italy.

Waves of emotions

On deck, people are dazed. They cry and wail or sit, looking shocked.

Later, they start to relax. They are finally safe. Most are simply relieved to be alive.

"Going from Nigeria to Europe isn't easy, through the land and through the sea," says Jamal Agboola-Muideen, 39, a father of four. "We lost a lot of people from the boat. I could have been among them."
He's the breadwinner for his extended family and says he was forced to flee after his parents died and he began receiving death threats from relatives wanting their land.

Also on board are migrant workers from Bangladesh stuck in Libya with no pay for two years. This boat is their only hope of escape.

These people come from Africa, South-East Asia or the Middle East. Girls huddle together for warmth at night. A woman uses a strip of gold space blanket as a turban. A young man gives his blanket to a shivering stranger. People put up their hands to help when someone trips on a lurching deck awash with water. A baby cries in distress and hunger while a demoralized mother looks away. The survivors ask for water, food, Wi-Fi, a coffee. The Topaz Responder is essentially a floating ambulance so only provides the first two.

Job not over

As the Topaz Responder docks in Augusta, Sicily, a 22-year-old man collapses, shaking uncontrollably. "It's a panic attack," says Italian doctor Brunella Pirozzi. The team comforts him and tries gently to unfurl his clenched fists. He is anguished he could not do more to protect his two brothers and his mother, killed in front of him in Libya, and his sister, who was abducted. He thinks he has an aunt in France. The Italian Red Cross can help him find her.

Once everyone is safely on land, the team's life-saving mission is done. But it's worth remembering that even though the 183 people rescued this time have made it to European soil, their ordeal is far from over. Many migrants to Italy end up trapped in border camps or are arrested in other countries and deported home or sent back to Italy, all while having almost zero chance of finding a job.

Still, in many ways, they are the lucky ones. Some 3,650 people died in the Mediterranean in the first nine months of 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration. And the plight of the men, women and children in other extremely dangerous migrant sea routes (such as the Gulf of Aden or the Bay of Bengal) gets far less attention from the media, humanitarian organizations, rescue organizations and governments. This is one reason why MOAS deployed a similar vessel in South-East Asia this summer, with the intent of patrolling international waters there.

The Red Cross Red Crescent cannot solve the political or economic conditions that push people to leave their countries in search of safety or dignity. That's the job of world leaders. But as Francesco Rocca, president of the Italian Red Cross, has said, the Red Cross will continue its life-saving work while pushing those leaders to step up and find long-term political and humanitarian solutions. "Without political solutions to the problems that force people to leave their homes," he says, "families will continue to pay the price with their lives."


Would you like to help migrants in your community in Australia? Here are five things you can do to make your community an even more welcoming, more supportive and more inclusive place to live.


This story first appeared in the Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine.

Story by Rosemarie North - writer, communications consultant and former editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine. Photos: Rosemarie North/IFRC and Kenny Karpov/IFRC.