Elina Niinivaara and Veera Kaleva
Two Different Rescue Days
Since 2015, the NGO Sea Watch has patrolled the Mediterranean Sea to help migrant ships in distress. I spent two weeks in 2017 volunteering on their ship.
At 3am we received a call from the MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) of Rome about a possible rubber boat right outside the territorial waters of Libya, in an area covered by international search and rescue. We started to sail towards the given coordinates, and by 6am, just as the sun was rising, we arrived. We peered through binoculars, trying to identify a small spot in the horizon amidst the waves. We were more than 24 hours away from Malta, the closest European coast.
We found the possible target and started to sail towards it. As we approached, I started to discern waving or flailing hands through the binoculars, facial characteristics, eyes. I had tried to prepare myself for the emotional impact of being within eye contact of people in distress, aware of how slim their chance of staying alive is. The boat looked bitty amidst the waves, in the middle of the endless sea. We were far from land, and the overloaded boats had no chance of staying intact or upright, even in good weather, for the many days journey ahead. The boats were so filled to the brim that they couldn’t even stand small waves for long without bursting. Wooden boats, which are rarer nowadays, could in theory make it, but have a larger risk of capsizing. Also the scorching sun often leads to serious dehydration, and to the suffocation of people on the lower deck. So all boats can be considered to be in a state of distress almost immediately after leaving land.
The leader of our mission estimated that there were 400 passengers in the wooden boat. I didn’t believe him until we got closer. It seemed impossible that so many people could fit into the boat, even with the knowledge that there would be as many people under the deck as on it. First through the binoculars, and gradually with bare eyes, I faced gazes: fear, hope, worry, determination, indifference, courage, panic? The men appeared to be from different corners of the world. At first I didn’t see women and children, because they usually travel in the middle of the upper deck, on the floor, which is considered the safest place.
I was afraid for them. What had they felt before the rescue ships were in sight? In what condition was the passengers’ health? From what kind of circumstances had they escaped from just a few hours earlier in Libya? I also knew that we were still not in safe waters—rescue operations are slow, and anything can happen to passengers without rescue vests, and for the most part, without swimming skills, as the waves crash against the boat. I was afraid for myself too; if their panicked and overloaded boat capsized right in front of our eyes, not much could be done. We did not have the equipment or know-how to rescue a whole boatful of people from the sea.
Unless Water is Safer Than The Land
We watched the situation through binoculars with our mechanic, while others prepared our rescue lifeboats to set out. He sighed, in thought, and commented on how hard it is to understand what horrors, suffering or impossibilities of life one must have faced to decide to place oneself so completely at the mercy of the sea. As the poet Warsan Shire writes in her poem ‘Home’, which is about immigration: “No one puts their children on a boat unless water is safer than the land.”
As the wooden boat seemed to be relatively stable and in good shape, the aim of our first lifeboat was to check the need for immediate first aid, and to hand out life vests. The aim was also to calm people, because in the event of panic or competition, the boat might easily lose its stability.
The Libyan coast guard was also there helping and communicating. Because Libya has split into several parts, its coast guard consists of different factions that have a very different approach to migrant boats and rescue operations. Especially lately, due to the February 2017 deal with EU leaders in which Libya’s UN-backed government was promised €200 million to reduce the flow of migrants from Libya and reinforce the Libyan coastguard, some of these factions have often used violence or threatened passengers with weapons, which has led to casualties and illegal pushbacks into international waters. This has forced many non-governmental organisations to temporarily cease assistance activities.
The Evacuation of the Boat
Some people tried to hand small children from the middle of the floor to the people working in the rescue boats, while life vests were being handed out. Our paramedics learned that on the lower deck there were four unconscious persons. It was not possible to bring them immediately to our hospital room to receive treatment, because both decks were so full. It also was not possible to hand out life jackets to the lower deck due to lack of space.
The evacuation of the boat began—first children with their mothers and other women, then other passengers from the upper deck to create space to move the sick from the lower deck. Our lifeboats were able to transport only about ten people at a time, and transferring from one boat to another is time consuming, because everything has to be done slowly in order to avoid panic or ‘mass escape’. I was on the deck to receive people. Most of them collapsed on the floor once they arrived, from heat and dehydration, or emotional distress.
For people who have just survived the sea, it is sometimes unclear under whose mandate, or under what authority, rescue ships operate. There is a tragic video on the Sea Watch web page, of a crying man who thinks the ship is cooperating with the Libyan authorities, saying: “let me drown here rather than return me back to Libya.”
The most grateful moment for the majority of people involved in the operation was the arrival of laughing small children who immediately connected with us. But it was awkward to receive the kisses, hugs and thanks of many women. I just wanted to thank and welcome them, and remind myself and them that it is just ‘normal’ to help those in distress—something anyone would do. Although the volunteer teams are motivated and just focus on getting the job done well, it is hard to avoid—in the action itself and in its representation—a setting where white rescuers look like ‘heroes’ to the passengers. But at that moment, the predominant feeling for many volunteers was just awe and respect for the survivors. To use the words of an unknown writer: “The true heroes of the so-called refugee crisis are the women and men and children on the road, despite unimaginable hardships.”
Many of the passengers, especially those who had relatives or friends still in the boat, were anxious about the unconscious persons on the lower deck, because there was no clear news about their status. At some point, a rumour spread that they were already dead. Many tearfully approached us, asking whether it was true. I couldn’t provide any answers, other than we didn’t know.
At last the sick people reached our deck so their medical status could be checked. No one was in a critical condition. Many were suffering from dehydration or burns caused by a mixture of diesel fuel and seawater. Our 30-metre-long deck started to become full of people, and we quickly reached a point where further navigation would be impossible.
The people from the lower deck of the wooden boat were just able to move to the upper deck, when a rubber boat drifted along with about 120 people on board. There were no other NGO boats or Italian coast guard ships present. The rubber boat was in an alarmingly bad shape, so we had to switch missions, temporarily suspending the wooden boat’s evacuation.
330 People on our Deck
By late afternoon, there were 330 people on our deck: children, women, men—many different nationalities like Syrians, Gambians, and Libyans. Clearly the biggest group that day were immigrant workers from Bangladesh, who weren’t so much aiming for Europe as aiming to escape the slavery that flourishes in Libya.
The weather forecast promised strong winds in the evening, so we waited a little, hoping for any big ship to come help with the evacuation. Not all would have fit on the deck, and we too needed to be able to navigate if the wind was to escalate as much as was predicted.
The waiting seemed to take ages, but at last an Italian coast guard ship arrived and helped evacuate the rest of the precarious passengers from the boats. They also took the guests from our ship, as they have the capacity to transfer people “to the nearest safe harbour” (as seafaring law states), which is usually Italy.
The sun was already setting when the last of the migrants had boarded and the coast guard ship started to transfer the passengers of two rubber boats and one wooden boat—hundreds of people—to Italy. It was in the nick of time, as the wind got so intense that we had to leave the rescue zone.
I didn’t dare to think what would happen to the travellers after surviving this border crossing. Many are immediately deported back to North African states, without even the possibility seek asylum, or they enter years of limbo throughout Europe. Nevertheless, I was grateful that our mission had been successful. People who are travelling in small boats have such a terribly small chance of survival.
The Next Day’s Tragedy
On the next rescue day, everything was different. We tried to keep an eye on a rubber boat that was reported to be far off in the territorial waters of Libya. We weren’t authorised to go to meet it before it entered international waters. Now and then, we received information about it, or thought we could see it with our binoculars.
The sun was already setting, and the boat hadn’t drifted any closer, when we were informed by the Libyan coast guard that it had broken down. 27 persons of an estimated 100 had been rescued and deported back to Libya, while the rest had drowned.
Against a Rhetoric of Abandonment
For many volunteers who are working in NGOs, the question isn’t so much about immigration, but simply about helping people in distress at sea, which they feel is the responsibility for all who travel by sea. For many organisers, the central point is a refusal to accept the discourse of abandonment that is currently prevalent in politics and the media.
In the words of Philip Hahn, Sea Watch activist: “It’s daydreaming to think that a higher risk of death would end escape aspirations.”
Some long term activists would like to understand Sea Watch sea rescue operations as inspirational: that it is possible to start doing things is spaces where governmental institutions have retreated from their responsibilities.
Hahn continues: “In addition to helping people in sea distress, I’d like this project to be seen as a source of inspiration for others who are in the situation of being able to do something. Not just by supporting us monetarily, or by joining our crew, but also through organising smaller and bigger activities that can directly support those who are in a worse situation.” He continues, referring to Sea Watch’s previous season, when the rescue ship in use was a lot smaller: “Last year, we saved 4000 people in 4.5 months with this lousy little ship, in order to not let the rhetoric of abandonment win.”
Taina Niemelä has been active in advocating for migrant rights in contexts like Calais, France; in Kabul, Afghanistan; and at the Syrian-Turkish border during the Kobane war, amongst others. She volunteered on the Sea Watch II ship for one two-week mission in the spring of 2017.
Elina Niinivaara and Veera Kaleva