People helping people in the Mediterranean

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Photo: SOS Meditérranée website

Over 4,000 desperate migrants have been rescued from the Mediterranean by the crew of MS Aquarius since May 2016. 

Ruby Pratka is a former Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph journalist, currently working as the communications officer aboard MS Aquarius for SOS Méditerranée, a Franco-German charity assisting migrants in the Mediterranean. This is her story: 

Sunrise on the Mediterranean. Most of the 25-strong crew of the Aquarius are still asleep, or just beginning their day. The captain and the person on watch scan the sky every few minutes with their binoculars. 

Twenty miles away, 120 people, mostly young men from sub-Saharan Africa, along with a dozen single women, a few solitary teenagers, and several families with young children, are squeezed into an inflatable boat meant for no more than 50. They had been held in squalid pre-departure detention camps in Libya and have had nothing to eat for three days. Five hours earlier, the boat had been pushed off the beach by paid smugglers who selected one terrified West African with no nautical training to be the driver. Now he and the others listen with increasing dread to the whistle of air escaping the slowly deflating boat. A helicopter flies overhead.

On the ship, the calm is shattered by a siren, and a tiny printer spits out information on the boat in distress: it has been spotted. A phone call from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, the Rome-based coordinating body for all search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean, confirms that the Aquarius will be responsible for the rescue. 

“Start the search operation!” announces our captain. “Go get everybody!” 

The volunteer search-and-rescue crew from SOS Méditerranée scramble up to the bridge, grabbing binoculars to look for the boat. The medical team from Doctors without Borders hurry to the back deck to make sure enough food and rescue blankets are on hand.   

The Aquarius has approached the boat. While one person tries to calm the passengers, others – four rescuers, a medic and a cultural mediator – go out in rescue boats to bring them aboard the Aquarius. Once there, some drop to their knees and pray some hug us or their friends. And some slump against us, too exhausted to stand.   

Our next task is to take them to port. In practical terms, this means we will spend the next two days living together in close quarters. Our new neighbours are a cross-section of humanity. There’s a large Eritrean family – brothers and sisters – leaving a country where young people are drawn into military service with no end date. There are tradespeople from all over Africa who sought work in Libya, had no way of getting back home once civil war began there, and who were subjected to kidnapping and forced labour based on the colour of their skin. 

There’s the woman with an advanced degree and a job who dropped everything when her life was threatened in a family conflict. There’s the mother of two, the 50-something father, the teenage Somali boy looking for his brother. His travelling companion suffered for days in the back of a truck with a piece of rocket-propelled-grenade shrapnel embedded in his thigh.  

So much loss, but also so much hope: to see long-lost relatives, to rebuild a business, to put children in school, to go to bed and wake up without the constant sound of shooting, to finally have a bath and a hot meal. 

These are the people we assist on the MS Aquarius, a crowd-funded, converted research ship plying the Mediterranean since February 2016. We have helped just over 4,000 people. Some are refugees fleeing persecution or war or terrorism; some are economic migrants looking for better jobs; many don’t fit neatly into either box. But they are all human beings, looking for a less desperate life, if not for themselves, for their families.  

One of the most difficult aspects of the job is seeing the passengers disembark. Our job is search-and-rescue, not refugee law or integration. We don’t know if there will be a happily-ever-after. But once these men and women are no longer in the sea, at least there is an “after.”  

For more information about SOS Meditéranée, visit sosmediterranee.org.