Lost at sea

The Mediterranean is the world’s most lethal border crossing. This year alone, more than 2,500 migrants are dead or missing after attempting the journey. As the debate over safe, legal routes rages, meet the NGOs battling to save those at sea.

In June 2013, Regina Catrambone was aboard a chartered yacht with her husband Christopher and daughter Maria Luisa for a sailing trip to the coast of Tunisia. As the yacht motored out from the harbour in Lampedusa, a tiny, picturesque island off the Sicilian coast, the Italian entrepreneur spotted an object bobbing gently on the water.

It was a winter jacket, a peculiar sight in the warm summer sun, and she asked their captain about it. He told her it had likely come from one of the thousands of migrants who’d attempted to cross to Italy from Libya, crammed into flimsy inflatable dinghies or fishing boats – one who had drowned in the process.

“Seeing that jacket was for us a tangible sign of how people were dying at Europe’s doorstep, in the same waters we were sailing in,” says Regina, who runs the multinational Tangiers Group with her husband, providing insurance and other services in conflict zones. “We realised that we were sailing over a grave.”

When Pope Francis weeks later inveighed against the “globalisation of indifference”, in his first visit outside the Vatican, the Catrambones took note. And by October, when more than 300 refugees – many from Somalia and Eritrea – drowned within sight of Lampedusa when their boat caught fire and sank, they’d taken action.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS, completed its first mission in late August 2014: a 90-day stint, funded by the Catrambones, in which it helped to rescue 3,104 migrants. Its boat, the Phoenix, is a 130ft ex-fishing trawler kitted out with drones, a helipad, a medical clinic, speedboats and inflatables to prop up listing vessels.

Now marking its third birthday, MOAS has come to the aid of more than 40,000 women,children and men – ranging in age from two days, to 92 years – both in the Mediterranean and, more recently, in South East Asia. The motto behind the first search-and-rescue NGO is simple: nobody deserves to die at sea.

“You will never stop migration; no one can. People will always be willing to make the crossing,” says Regina. “But what we can do is try to help them. We have a responsibility to do that.”

“These are people who often don’t know how to swim, who may have never seen the sea before. That they’ll get on a boat with their family tells you how desperate they are.”

Rob MacGillivray, director of search and rescue, Save the Children.

In the three years since the start of the migrant crisis, the Mediterranean has become its most fraught humanitarian zone. In 2015, more than 1 million migrants tried to reach Europe by sea, with 3,771 dead or missing on the crossing. They come from failed and fragile states – Eritrea, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan – fleeing famine, civil war, poverty and lawlessness. Some simply go in search of a better life.

Italy is the busiest gateway, a result in part of a deal between the EU and Turkey struck in 2016 to stem the flow of migrants to Greece. Of the 131,772 people that reached Europe by sea in the first nine months of this year, 78 per cent arrived in Italy. Most launched from Libya, where anarchy and the absence of a central government has lit a thriving, criminal trade in people smuggling, one which helped earn traffickers as much as $6bn in 2015.

Europe has struggled to shape effective answers to the crisis. Tightened borders and policies have seen arrival numbers dip, but – in a parrying dance between EU states and traffickers – as one sea crossing closes, new routes crop up.

In August, a video captured sunbathers on a Spanish beach watching in bemusement as a rubber dingy of migrants fetched up on the shore. Spain has seen a spike in arrivals this year after a clampdown on the central Mediterranean route from Libya. In a macabre popularity contest, it is gaining on Greece as a destination for migrants.

In the aftermath of the Lampedusa drownings in 2013, Italy unveiled a major search and rescue patrol, Mare Nostrum – or ‘our sea’ – at a cost of $12m a month. A year later, responsibility passed to the surveillance and rescue mission Operation Triton, run by Europe’s border control agency Frontex. Over the next 12 months, as the death toll climbed, NGOs joined MOAS in running rescue missions along the world’s most lethal border crossing, scooping up a quarter of all those saved in 2016.

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Regina Catrambone, cofounder of MOAS, distributes food onboard the Phoenix following a rescue. Photo: MOAS.

“If people are dying, irrespective of whether the humanitarian arena is in sub-Saharan Africa or the sea, we are obliged to help,” says Rob MacGillivray, director of Save the Children’s search-and-rescue operations. “The imperative is exactly the same.”

Save the Children has rescued more than 4,200 people since launching its patrol a year ago, including 550 children – many of which were travelling alone. Its ship, the Vos Hestia, is a 200ft anchor-handler usually based in Sicily. It has capacity for about 350 people, though previous rescues have seen it take more than 600.

Along with high-speed dinghies, a medical clinic and a 22ft container used as shelter for unaccompanied minors, the ship also holds a mortuary for the times its crew must pull bodies from the sea.

“These are people who often don’t know how to swim, who may have never seen the sea before. Yet they still take the risk,” says MacGillivray. “That they’ll get on a boat with their family – that they put their children on these boats – tells you how desperate they are.”

For many, the Mediterranean is the last leg in a journey of horror. An estimated 90 per cent of migrants reaching the EU have passed through smuggling gangs, paying anywhere between $3,200 to $6,500 for passage. In West Africa, they are trafficked through smuggling hubs such as the city of Agadez, in Niger. From there, they are ferried in densely-packed pickup trucks across the Sahara desert, unwittingly shadowing the ancient caravan routes of the trans-Saharan slave trade, before crossing into Libya.

The Horn of Africa trail is fuelled by Eritrea, among the world’s fastest-emptying states, where traffickers deal in citizens fleeing poverty, persecution and military conscription. Migrants are shuttled through outposts in Sudan and across the border to Libya, where they are held in camps on the coast. Syrians, meanwhile, may find themselves exported south through Jordan and Egypt, before either crossing the border directly, or threading upwards through Sudan to Libya.

For those with money, the journey can take days. Those without must move in stages, at risk of abduction, extortion, forced labour, or prostitution. Migrants routinely recount tales of beatings, abuse, and rape, or of being held for months by armed gangs until their families raised enough money to secure their release.

Others may find themselves traded to rival groups. In April, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) warned migrants in Libya were being bought and sold openly in modern-day slave markets, a sign of how normalised the trade has become.

What links these stories is where they end: held captive in Libya, waiting for a seat in a boat. Migrants tell of being forced – sometimes at gunpoint – to board dangerously overfilled boats, with little food or water and too few lifejackets to go around. Stacked to capacity, these battered dinghies and exposed wooden ships are then pushed out into the waves, often with barely enough fuel to reach international waters.

“Someone is given the task of steering and the smugglers will say ‘just head for that light out there, that’s Italy,’ and off they go,” says MacGillivray. “Then they find the light out there is actually an oil platform just inside Libyan waters. And it’s at that point that the fuel runs out and the boat starts taking on water.”

The first minutes of a rescue are tense. NGO vessels approach cautiously, using loudspeakers to relay instructions in multiple languages to those packed into the boats: “We are here to help you. Stay where you are; sit still. You are safe. We are going to take you to Italy.”

High-speed dinghies or speedboats rush lifejackets out to the boat, before people are gradually transferred to the ship and given food, water, blankets and clothing, and medical aid. Pregnant women, children and the sick are ferried across first, with rescues sometimes taking hours to complete.

“Those first few minutes are the most worrying,” says Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) UK and Ireland. MSF works onboard the Aquarius, a 500-capacity ship chartered by the German-French charity SOS Mediteranée, offering medical aid to those rescued.

“There can be three, four, five dinghies in the immediate waters, and depending on the weather, and the condition of the boats, it can be very tricky,” he explains.

Rescues operate on a knife-edge. A wave, or a rush to the side of the boat can be enough to capsize an overloaded, waterlogged vessel, tipping people into the sea. In the blur of chaos, and flailing desperation of those in the water, deaths are almost inevitable. “You can’t save everyone in that type of situation,” says Abdelmoneim.

Last August, he joined the Aquarius for a three-week rotation off the coast of Tripoli, supporting the ship’s medical team. The weekend before he boarded, the crew had responded to a dangerously overfilled dingy in distress in the central Mediterranean. Panic had erupted when the plywood strut lining the base of the dingy snapped, folding the sides of the boat inwards and onto the occupants. In the ensuing stampede, more than 20 people died, crushed or drowned in the melee.

“My colleagues had to treat survivors with bite marks on their ankles and calves from those at the bottom of the boat trying to save themselves,” he says. “To endure so much to get there, and then to die in such horrific circumstances – it’s just tragic.”

Boarding the larger smuggler boats “is like entering hell,” says Regina. Migrants throng the upper and lower decks, huddling in the hull in waist-deep water that is laced with fuel, vomit and urine. “The smell is unimaginable, and the fumes are intoxicating,” she says.

Mixed with saltwater, the fuel causes chemical burns, peeling away the skin. “We regularly see third, fourth-degree burns. If they’ve been in the water long enough, their skin will fuse with their clothes.”

The rescues have left their mark on her, Regina says. “When I see the women, a mother like me who arrives with her semi-dead child, I cannot understand the inhumanity of those who want to turn a blind eye.”

Search-and-rescue NGOs occupy a difficult space. In recent months, Italy has made renewed efforts to stem seaborne migration, striking a deal to support the Libyan coastguard in its capacity to intercept and turn back migrant boats. Alongside this are rumours of pacts brokered with tribes and militias to clamp down on trafficking.

These methods have proved effective: more than 16,500 migrants have been returned to Libya this year, and the rate of those reaching Italian shores has plummeted. But the policy has been harshly criticized by humanitarian groups, who point to the plight of tens of thousands of migrants kept in overcrowded, inhumane detention camps in Libya; unable to move on and unwilling to go home.

In late July, Rome drew up a ‘code of conduct’ for search-and-rescue NGOs at sea which, among other measures, called for NGOs to allow armed police onboard to monitor activities. This is despite aid agencies already operating under the oversight of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.

Libya has also asserted its right to operate well beyond its territorial limit of 12 nautical miles, leading to violent clashes with NGO vessels positioned on the edge of Libyan waters. In August, Save the Children, MSF and Germany’s Sea Eye suspended their rescue operations, citing increasing hostilities with the Libyan authorities.

In September, MOAS announced that it would shift its rescue operations to South East Asia and the Rohingya migrant crisis, temporarily halting its work in the Mediterranean, but pledging to resume its operations if circumstances change.

Underpinning this backlash is the idea that NGOs act as a ‘pull factor’ for smugglers, who put migrants in ever-more fragile boats with the expectation of rescue. Abdelmoneim disputes this theory, countering that rescue patrols are not the cause of the situation but a response. The conditions in Libya are so nightmarish, he says, that migrants feel it is a death sentence if they stay.

“People have become a commodity in Libya now; it’s a trade,” he explains. “The [migrants] we see have stab wounds, broken limbs; they’ve been abused, beaten and subjected to detention. So if the choice is to stay, or push forward – no matter what the chances – they will try to cross anyway. They will find a way, because to stay is worse.”

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Thousands of people are risking their lives in search of a better one in the European Union. Photo: Getty Images.

Bottling up migrants in Libya may also push smugglers to resurrect disused and more perilous routes to Europe, says MacGillivray, crossing from Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt. The rate of death among migrants making the journey this year is already twice as high as it was in 2016, according to IOM data.

“We are dealing with the largest unmarked grave in recent times, and I fear it will become larger if people are forced to take greater risks,” MacGillivray warns.

NGOs agree that search-and-rescue patrols are not the answer to the Mediterranean’s migrant crisis, the brunt of which has been shouldered by Italy. What is needed to solve the problem, says Regina, are legal humanitarian corridors, which would sever the need for smuggling operations.

“We hope that eventually there won’t be a need for MOAS,” she says. “[But] while we discuss what to do to block the flows or avoid landings, there are those who continue to risk their life at sea.”

For Abdelmoneim, it is simply a matter of people putting themselves in the place of a migrant family. “If there was no work, if you were living in mud, poverty and conflict, if your children were sick, or if your baby was dying from malnourishment – faced with those pressures, wouldn’t you leave?” he asks. “You would go in a heartbeat. And so would they.

“These people have hopes and dreams, just as we do,” he concludes. “So how can we deny them a future?” – PA

With our thanks to MOAS, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières.