A humanitarian organization providing rescue and assistance to migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea rescued 188 people and transferred them to a British warship on Wednesday.
The Malta-based MOAS — an NGO whose acronym stands for Migrant Offshore Aid Station — rescued the migrants after they left Libya in two rubber dinghies. The boats were the fifth and sixth MOAS aided since it launched its second year of operations in early May.
The transfer to the HMS Bulwark marks the first time the Royal Navy's flagship has ever received a transfer of migrants from a private rescue vessel. MOAS photographer Jason Florio told VICE News that the hand-off was seamless — apart from apprehension on the part of the migrants upon seeing the military ship.
"Some of them were a little bit nervous when they saw the HMS Bulwark show up on the horizon," Florio said from aboard the organization's 130-foot ship, the Phoenix. "But I think they were just thankful they weren't floating around in a rubber dinghy anymore."
Since MOAS is not affiliated with any government, representatives say they can pilot the Phoenix into Libyan waters and near the country's coast, meaning the organization can more quickly respond to distress calls from migrant boats.
Related: Citizen Initiatives Are Helping to Save Migrants in the Mediterranean
MOAS said it used one of its Schiebel Camcopter drones to locate the first of the two vessels rescued. The Phoenix then coordinated with a merchant vessel, oil tanker Torm Amazon, to locate the second boat. The tanker provided leeward shelter — essentially blocking the wind to provide for a smoother rescue — which is a common job for large merchant vessels in such situations.
The Camcopters are monitored from the bridge of the Phoenix. Seeing the plight of the migrants this way can be "nerve-racking," Florio said, especially since it can take the Phoenix a significant amount of time to reach a boat in distress that's been spotted by a drone.
"Suddenly you're watching this grainy image of a boat bobbing around," Florio said. "There's no stopping at that point — everything goes into gear to get the rescue underway."
Wednesday's rescue came as European countries debate a response to the influx of migrants risking the dangerous Mediterranean crossing in overloaded vessels as they flee war, poverty, and political dysfunction in Africa and the Middle East. So far this year, at least 1,750 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean, 20 times the number during the same period last year, according to the BBC.
The migrants rescued by MOAS on Wednesday come from 15 different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. All of the migrants were men save for one Nigerian woman, who is eight months pregnant. None of the migrants showed any health complications, according to a spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières, who are providing medical care for migrants aboard MOAS.
These rescues cap off just the second week of operations for MOAS this year, and raise the total rescued migrants to 888.
MOAS says they've rescued about twice as many people than they did at this time last year. In 2014, MOAS was credited with saving 3,000 lives in just 60 days. This year's mission will continue through October.
The 188 migrants from MOAS will be joining another 400 migrants aboard the HMS Bulwark, who were rescued by the naval ship earlier on Wednesday. That group, made up mostly of women and children, was rescued from four 30-foot inflatable boats discovered approximately 40 miles off the coast of Libya. Following the transfer, the HMS Bulwark will sail to port in Sicily.
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