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“We can’t do this forever”: At sea with migrant rescuers

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 were 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.


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, get rescued by larger ships if they’re 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 so far in 2017, more than 70,000 of them in Italy.

As warmer weather brings more 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 this year, 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.”


Almost all the migrants and refugees set off from Libya. After they reach the country, they must typically wait for an available boat. While they do, many are subjected to torture, inhumane detention, or starvation, and some are even sold off in modern-day slave auctions. One U.N. migration agency spokesperson recently told the Guardian that because most people now taking this route are impoverished, black, sub-Saharan Africans, “there’s definitely less interest in them and less warmth toward them than there was toward the refugees coming in from Syria last year.”

Italy and NGOs are doing the bulk of the rescuing while other authorities and politicians on both sides of the route turn increasingly hostile. When organizations like MSF began to work closer to the Libyan coast to try and save more lives, European leaders and agencies accused them of incentivizing people to risk the journey and encouraging smugglers, a claim described by researchers as “toxic.”

Earlier this month, the mayor of Rome called for a block on the arrival of migrants in the city, while a chief prosecutor in Sicily claimed charities were profiting from the crisis by working with smugglers.

The far right in Europe has transformed their online activism against refugees into real-life efforts. In May, one group attempted to block an MSF rescue ship from entering port in Sicily. The far right also crowdsourced more than 73,000 euros to pay for boats to block rescue efforts by charities, declaring them “enemies of Europe.”


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The team onboard the MSF ship included doctors, a deck manager, cultural mediators, and a psychologist. They also worked alongside a more traditional ship’s crew, some of whom were familiar with the setup. Others, however, were more accustomed to collecting oil barrels than bodies.

Death was never far. On the wall in the medical room, a list read, “Drowning protocol; hypothermia protocol; burns protocol; management of dead bodies.” On the first deck, there were two large metal containers: one to store equipment, the other to store corpses on ice until they could be transferred to shore.

The boat MSF rescued represented a microcosm of what drives people to Europe. The majority of people on board had traveled from West African countries like Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, but others were from Bangladesh, Morocco, and Syria. Most were men, but there were also women and children.

Some were fleeing persecution and violence. Others were simply hoping to find work so they can send money back home. Some were terrified of the journey ahead, others shrugged it off. They all seemed to have one thing in common, however: Before they got on the boat in Libya, they had resigned themselves to the possibility of dying.

By 11 p.m., the crew had been operating for 18 hours and was ready to end the day. Then suddenly another boat was spotted — but with over 900 people already on board, the crew was unsure they were equipped to handle another influx. But they did.


Two women were pulled on board screaming because leaking fuel and salt water had burned their legs.

At midday the next day, the boat took a detour to Lampedusa, a small island on the way to Sicily, for an emergency evacuation of an unconscious woman. Dozens of people watched as she was carried off the deck on a stretcher, her husband walking by her side.

On the final day of travel back to the Italian shore, high waves crashed against the boat. People vomited into bags, while others tried to rest, wrapping blankets over their faces to shield the sun. Finally, they arrived in Europe, but to an extremely uncertain future.

While the exhausted MSF team was driven to save lives, they also said they knew their work isn’t a long-term solution to the ongoing crisis.

“In this moment in time, right now, we need to be doing these rescues,” one mediator said. “But we can’t do this forever…. We save them in the short term, save them from dying very quickly. But their misery doesn’t just end. Half will maybe end up in shelters, the other half will end up on the streets. Many will die very slowly in Europe instead.”