Wednesday

29th Sep 2021

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Ocean Viking leaves French port of Marseille

  • The French coastline begins to recede as the Ocean Viking heads out into open seas (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Excitement and dread.

The mix of emotions as the Ocean Viking leaves the French port of Marseille for open seas is difficult to gauge. But while most cheered as the boat headed out of port, the reality of what lay ahead remained very present.

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  • The sea presents its horizon (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Beyond the horizon, thousands of people are fleeing a Libya that has left them exposed to horrors difficult to fully comprehend. Testimonies of people willing to die at sea, rather than return, are not uncommon.

The mission ahead will bear testimony to historical events that are shaping and shifting the very foundations of the European Union, as EU states abandon their legal obligations to save people at sea.

For seven days, the crew quarantined in a hotel in Marseille, then spent another five onboard the ship for preparation and intensive training.

On Saturday, they ran drills on hoisting the smallest of its three rescue boats, at 1.6 tonnes, onto the water. On Sunday, they covered basic medical training, including CPR and the proper use of stretchers.

A course has now been plotted for Bonifacio, a strait that separates Corsica and Sardinia.

There they will carry out additional drills on its two primary rescue speed boats, also known as rigid-hull inflatable boats (Rhib).

"You have to think about what you actually can achieve," said Charlie, a Swedish national who leads the search and rescue crew on one of the two Rhibs.

"What you can do, what you can have influence on, and what is out of your control," he said.

It is impossible to eliminate all dangers at once during a rescue.

But there are principles of approach that can help reduce the risks, which need to be choreographed, communicated, and carefully synchronised with the rest of the team.

Rescuing people at sea is not just a form of humanitarian assistance, it is a core legal obligation firmly rooted in international law.

But the real test for the Ocean Viking begins after Bonifacio.

SOS Mediterranee has saved close to 33,000 people since its launch in 2015. So the crew includes people with vast experience and training.

Among them is SOS Mediterranee's rescue coordinator Luisa Albera, as well as rescue boat leaders Charlie and Frenchman Jeremie.

"Day to day, we will see where we are," said Albera, during the morning brief on Sunday (27 June)

The bearing is clear.

Migrant and refugee boat departures are concentrated around northwestern Libyan coastal cities like Sabratha, Zawiya, and Al Khums.

The plan is to patrol the international waters north of Al Khums towards the Tunisian border.

Their hope is to rescue as many people as possible, while providing medical care and assistance onboard.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says the majority of those arriving at Libyan ports come from Sudan, Mali, and Bangladesh.

But their interception rates by the Libyan Coast Guard also vary, suggesting some networks are better protected than others.

"If you are Bangladeshi, you have a 19 percent chance to be caught by the Libyan coast guard," a diplomatic source told EUobserver.

"But if you are Sudanese you have more than 70 percent chance to be caught by the Libyan coast guard," noted that same source.

The Ocean Viking will likely be the only NGO ship in operation in the area.

Although the Spanish-based Open Arms was recently released after two months detention, it is unlikely to sail anytime soon.

And the Geo Barents, operated by Doctors without Borders (MSF), recently disembarked over 400 people in Sicily.

Author bio

Nikolaj Nielsen, an EUobserver journalist, is embedded on the Ocean Viking for the coming weeks, reporting exclusively from the boat on the Mediterranean migration route.

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