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Search and rescue: "There is a real fear that the women are being trafficked"

Mark has recently joined the team on the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated jointly by MSF / Doctors without Borders and SOS MEDITERRANEE. Here he blogs about the team's work in the Mediterranean:

It’s crazy to think about all these people floating around out here.

I write on the port-side deck, looking out to sea.

I just heard 800 people were picked up today. That’s between us, the one other NGO ship and the Italian Coast Guard. That’s 800 people, even though it’s winter when everyone thought things would settle down.
The weather has been bad, but today was a good day with a full moon so maybe more boats set off from Libya. So…right, we found 800 people, but how many didn't get picked up and are still out there in this black sea?

Typically someone on the boat will call this MRCC (Maritime Coordination Rescue Center) hotline in Rome on a satellite phone that you never find, thrown overboard. Or a smuggler accompanies them for a while and makes the call and we're sent coordinates.

Sometimes there isn't a call and the little boats, crowded with people, are spotted from our bridge or picked up on radar.

We found 800 people, but how many are still out there in this black sea?

On both rescues since I’ve arrived we've found the boats the day they departed shore; usually we do. We have to, since their chances of making it overnight aren’t good.

This movement of people strikes me here much more heavily than the limited exposure I've had to this migration working with Doctors Without Borders in the north of Ethiopia. There, sure, people are moving with basically nothing, but at least they're on land.

The movement of people in Ethiopia is easier for me to comprehend than the idea of floating around this massive body of water, often without even a life jacket. Nothing in their pockets. One rescuer told me he picked up a man last summer who was naked. Apparently it’s not that uncommon.

When we find the floundering rafts, the rescue team drops rigid inflatable boats – known as ‘ribs’ – into the water and speeds towards them.

As they near the raft, the team’s approach is deliberate and calm to prevent panic. Often people fall into the water or jump trying to reach the ribs faster. Brought alongside incorrectly people sometimes charge aboard, creating a very dangerous situation.

The refugees are shuttled to our Aquarius – a 1977, 77-metre fishery patrol boat – where they are triaged for medical problems, registered and given ‘rescue kits’ – bags with a new jumpsuit, shirt, blanket, socks, winter hat, a small towel, water bottle and a large box of high calorie survival biscuits.

Severe medical cases are treated immediately in our clinic, with less severe cases noted for follow-up once everyone is on board. When everyone has changed and settled we serve hot sugary tea, and if needed, plastic sleeping bags and whatever else we can offer for warmth.

If there are dead, their bodies are placed in body bags and brought to our morgue, a red shipping container on the bow of the ship.

The MRCC, by and large, coordinates our movements. We might transfer guests to another ship, or receive transfers ourselves. When and where we disembark depends on a number of factors including how many guests we have, for how long they’ve been aboard and the capacity of various Italian ports to receive refugees.

There are countless testimonies that female refugees are sexually exploited

While aboard the Aquarius our guests are given two meals a day, one hot. We also provide the occasional snack, clean water, tea, sanitation facilities and, importantly, medical treatment and counselling for those who are particularly vulnerable. Generally, we do whatever we can to assist those in our care.

There is this whole dynamic of providing safe passage. The imperative is absolutely saving lives and honouring human rights but there's a real complexity here to say the least.

Yesterday of the 35 people we rescued, 10 were women. One had a husband on board that someone vetted, the rest were also young, and entirely alone.

A woman in a lifejacket on board the Aquarius

A woman on board the MV Aquarius. Photo: Kevin McElvaney

There is a real fear that the women are being trafficked. The particularly horrible risks that await them on the other side are apparent – there are countless testimonies that female refugees are sexually exploited along the migration path, and also in their home countries. And this terrible reality they are escaping is all too likely what they are arriving to in Europe.

We have a humanitarian affairs officer and a cultural mediator on board. Together with the medical team they speak with the women, listen to them if they do want to share their experiences, and provide them with resources that offer a way out of the trafficking system.

It’s clear how tremendously important this is – the chance to reach the especially vulnerable and offer them protection and counsel. When we get ashore we will refer vulnerable guests directly to agencies that focus on protection. This goes for the large number of unaccompanied male minors (boys under the age of 18) as well, and other vulnerable groups such as victims of torture.

These people would have died were it not for rescue ships such as ours

The severity of this situation is striking to say the least. These people would have died were it not for rescue ships such as ours.

The people we rescue are sent desperate and ill-equipped out to sea; misled by traffickers or aware of the insurmountable risks but without better options for refuge due to misguided, or at least convoluted immigration policies. This plus the threats to their lives and hopelessness they are fleeing from in their home countries.

One thing is clear watching these flimsy, over-packed rafts on such a massive sea: the consequences of all this cost lives. Many, many lives – over 5,000 in 2016 according to the UN (1), or one out of every seventy three people who tried to cross (2).

One out of every 73. I think of this number. I imagine myself walking down the street of New York City where I’m from, knowing that one person on that sidewalk wasn’t going to make it.

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