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At Sea With Migrant Rescuers: "We Can't Do This Forever"

Nearly 83,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea in 2017 and the pace isn't slowing.
June 25, 2017, 7:41pm

THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA — The walkie-talkies crackled to life at about 4:30 a.m. "MSF staff to deck. MSF staff to deck."

Most of the crew aboard the Doctors Without Borders /Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ship was asleep, but the organization had been running its rescue operation since 2015, and they knew the drill well. Within five minutes, people were on deck, wearing boots, helmets, and life jackets, ready to help.

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The sea was still and the sky was dark on the early June morning, but crew members pointed toward the horizon; they had spotted a speck in the distance — a boat carrying migrants. Within 40 minutes, the MSF ship had reached the much smaller vessel, and one by one, its passengers were rescued and brought aboard. A shivering pregnant woman, breathless and drenched, was wrapped in a Mylar blanket by a doctor.

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It's a scene that has played out countless times in recent years: Refugees and migrants squeeze onto rickety boats launched from Africa, are rescued by larger ships if they are lucky, and are then brought to Europe. The pace isn't slowing; according to the U.N. Migration Agency, nearly 83,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea in 2017, more than 70,000 of them in Italy.

As warmer weather increases the number of migrants attempting to reach Europe by boat this year, groups like MSF that operate rescue ships have come under fire — both literally and figuratively — from all sides. Rescuers are now being accused of paying smugglers to deliver people, fired upon by the Libyan coast guard, and targeted by members of the European far-right as they attempt to physically stop the rescues.

The route between Libya and Italy remains treacherous. Photos circulate online of dead bodies washed up on the Libyan shore. Last month, video showed a boat loaded with passengers as it burst into flames. At least 1,990 migrants and refugees have died crossing the Mediterranean so far in 2017, a death rate that has reportedly doubled in the past year. MSF U.K. Executive Director Vickie Hawkins describes the Mediterranean as a "giant cemetery."

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