Wednesday

28th Jul 2021

On board with SOS Méditerranée

NGO sea-rescue mission exposes reality of EU 'values'

  • The Ocean Viking rescued more than 570 people during a single mission (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The crew of the Ocean Viking search-and-rescue vessel are currently in a 10-day quarantine, anchored in the Sicilian port of Augusta.

The Norwegian-flagged ship disembarked 572 people over the weekend, who were then transferred onto the GNV Azzurra, an out-of-service commercial passenger ferry, anchored nearby.

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  • Morning of 8 July, 24-hours before food rations were due to run out (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

But while the next chapters of those people rescued have yet to be written, the dramas on the NGO boat over the past few weeks speak volumes of a European Union unable to square its value system with its politics and policies.

"Saving lives at sea is not optional," according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. It is also a legal obligation under international maritime law.

But in practice, that means a beefed-up Libyan coast guard, the criminalisation of NGOs attempting to help - and the near-total absence of state-led rescue operations at sea.

"The major frustration is that there is the lack of coordination," said SOS Mediterranee's rescue coordinator Luisa Albera, pointing out that the EU's border agency Frontex does not share any information with her.

"I know only what I can see, or if Alarm Phone (the NGO rescue alert) is sending me an email," she said.

The central Mediterranean migration route has become the world's deadliest, in what appears to be a political choice. Most seaborne-people are intercepted by the Libyans and returned to conditions no one can claim are safe.

The lucky few are brought to Europe by humanitarian organisations, where their fates remain far from certain.

The Egyptian car mechanic

Among those, this time, is a stocky 44-year old car mechanic from Egypt nicknamed Mimmi. I last saw him sobbing on the deck of the Ocean Viking.

He had been accused of theft, so he stripped himself naked to prove his innocence and then broke down. Someone then offered him a blanket, while others began to help him dress. Within the hour of his breakdown, he stepped onto Italian soil on Saturday (10 July).

Mimmi had been the very last person to be rescued, along with 368 other people found in the middle of the night well inside Libya's search-and-rescue region the previous Sunday. On the large blue-hulled wooden boat, he had helped the crew manage the rescue by keeping people calm.

And while onboard Ocean Viking, he said the deep scar across his neck was from a machete. The Libyan militia had tried to decapitate him, he said. Mimmi and everyone else on the wooden boat would have most certainly perished had Ocean Viking arrived a day later, when sea swells were at three metres.

Superstition

Perhaps it was sheer luck.

The SOS Mediterranée crew had, in its previous mission (its 12th outing) found some 130 corpses floating at sea. The number 13 carries with it the weight of superstition. So the crew decided to label this most recent rotation, where Mimmi was rescued, number 14.

After several days of stocking supplies, and a private security detail parked nearby, they had finally left the French port of Marseilles at twilight on 27 June.

"Every rescue I'm losing 15 days of my life in stress, anxiety," Jeremie, a French national and one of two search-and-rescue team leaders, told EUobserver, who is only using crew's first names.

"When people are asking me what is the rescue that is 'marking' you? I say it is the one I haven't done yet," he said, early in the evening on 30 June.

Later that same night, the bridge picked up a Mayday call. A boat had capsized 32 nautical miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The people onboard had been rescued by a nearby fishing vessel and brought to safety. The following morning, the Ocean Viking had spotted an empty wooden boat adrift in Malta's search-and-rescue zone.

Other such boats would also be found over the next few days, some set ablaze by an aggressive Libyan coast guard, which has already intercepted and returned to Libya 15,000 people so far this year.

Then - in the span of less than four days and six rescues at the start of July - the Ocean Viking saved almost 600 people.

Malta ignores plea for help

Malta had been called on numerous times to help coordinate one of these rescues, which took place within its search zone. But they refused, leaving the fate of a boat with 15 children, including two small disabled boys, in the hands of the NGO.

The final rescue was both the largest and also the most dramatic, with some people boarding the ship in stretchers and in fits of shock.

The medical team had laid out their kit on deck for quick access. They also offered hugs and a shoulder to cry on, for the most distraught. For some, it may have been the first act of kindness in years.

But the people soon found themselves squeezed together tightly on deck, shoulder-to-shoulder while the women and small children were placed in a separate shelter.

A boy, maybe 14 years old, was left standing in the aft unable to find a spot to sleep.

So he remained upright until morning, leaning against the metal door of a container unit with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

By the next day, the Libyans rescued had hired two African males for protection in exchange for cigarettes.

The Bangladeshis were trading shaving supplies by the rescue container, while the Egyptians had set up their own cigarette shop near the muster station. Packets were selling for €50.

The SOS Mediterranee crew worked round the clock shifts to keep everyone calm, some only getting three hours sleep over 48 hours.

Then Italy offered a port of safety late Thursday evening, 24 hours before food rations would run out, followed by a wild explosion of joy. But Covid was never distant. Sixteen of those rescued tested positive on the day of disembarkation.

It is not immediately clear if Ocean Viking will be allowed to return to sea, given the wider government crackdown on NGOs. But the crew is already gearing up for the next rotation.

"You can see these young boys, girls, you know, the eyes, even if they don't speak. They speak more louder," said Albera, of the thousands she had helped save over the years.

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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