What it’s like aboard an NGO ship rescuing hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean

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Migrants fall into the water during a rescue in the Mediterranean.
Migrants fall into the water during a rescue in the Mediterranean.

Louis Leeson

There are no sirens when the call comes in. No alarms or shouting. Just a calm voice over the radio in the darkness of the cabin: “All stations, all stations.”

Then it’s only belt buckles clanging and zippers being pulled as everyone hurries in silence to get dressed. The ship’s rhythmic engine roars to life as it heads toward its target.

It’s 6 a.m. on the Vos Hestia, a Save the Children migrant rescue ship operating in the Mediterranean Sea. We arrived in the search and rescue zone in international waters, 12 miles off the coast of Libya, at dusk the previous evening to patrol an area where this year more than 2,400 people have died trying to reach Europe.

These first subdued moments belie what is to follow. Over the next 12 hours, more than 1,000 people will be pulled from the sea on to three rescue ships.

The Vos Hestia would take on 635 people — its largest rescue to date at the time.

The first boat

The buildup to this rescue has been longer than most. It takes a couple of days to reach the search and rescue zone from Italy, where the ship is based. But a stop in Malta for ship repairs means the crew has been on board for nearly two weeks.  

Among them are nurses, child psychologists, translators and rescuers. Some are here for the first time. Others know what to expect.

There has been a sense of restlessness on the ship, and something like relief when the moment finally arrives.

When the call comes in, the crew moves quickly through the narrow hallways and steep steps in the belly of the ship, through the engine room and onto the deck.  

In the early morning light, the faint haze of the Libyan coast appears on the horizon. Through the binoculars, a white inflatable boat with a few dozen people on board comes into view.

This type of boat is becoming more common. Smugglers used to favor a sturdier wooden variety. But the coast guards of Libya and Italy frequently destroy migrant boats after capturing them. The smugglers have replaced them with cheaper, deadlier inflatable boats.

A winch lowers one of the Vos Hestia’s lifeboats and four of the crew step aboard. Three are part of the ship’s permanent crew. The fourth is a cultural mediator with Save the Children, the charity that runs the rescue operation. Another lifeboat follows.

The Vos Hestia’s engines slow to a hum and the lifeboats are deployed. The word comes back that women and children are on board.

The moment the two boats meet is jarring for rescuers and rescued alike. It’s the start of something that the aid workers have trained for and rehearsed repeatedly. For the migrants, it’s a signal that the worst part of their journey is coming to an end.

The relief can be overwhelming. Some people surge toward the lifeboat to hasten the end of their ordeal. Boats have been known to capsize at such times.    

As the lifeboat approaches the rubber dinghy, Marya Al Nawakil, a cultural mediator with Save the Children, shouts through her megaphone: “Stay calm, sit down, women and children first.”

Most on board are from Bangladesh. They look incredibly tired and don’t immediately react when the boat approaches. One of the rescuers throws a rope.

A woman climbs awkwardly onto the raised inflatable side next to the lifeboat and shimmies across. She slumps down at the front of the boat. The first rescue has been made.

A crying child follows, their teeth chattering in the cold morning air. The crew shouts for the child’s mother. She clambers over and collapses into the boat. As they set off in the direction of the Vos Hestia, she points to the sky, thanking God.

6:30 a.m.

Back on the Vos Hestia, an expectant crew receives the first group. The women climb aboard the deck and collapse into the arms of the staff. Aid workers hand them a backpack with food, water and a blanket, and show them to a space to sit.

It takes two hours to transfer everyone from the dinghy to the ship. Eighty-four people are rescued.

It’s unusual for a boat to be out on its own. Smugglers usually send them out in batches to reduce the chance they are caught.

But close to two hours after the first call came in, the morning is still again. There is even some discussion about whether we will begin the two-day journey back to port in Italy.  

Staff busy themselves with attending to the rescued migrants. Schedules are worked out at a short team meeting. Breakfast is served.

The calm lasts for about an hour. Then, out of the clear blue sea, the rush arrives.

9 a.m.

“All stations, all stations, all stations. We’ve received information about possibly 10 boats currently within Libyan territorial waters. We are proceeding to the position, along with [the ships] Aquarius and Iuventa. ETA is about one hour. 10 a.m. All staff please go to the deck and prepare for further rescues.”

That call comes over the radio from Gillian Moyes, the leader of the rescue operation aboard the Vos Hestia. For the second time this morning, the ship’s engines roar into action. Moyes says there could be as many as 1,000 people in need of assistance.

It becomes clear that this will be no ordinary rescue.

Two other rescue ships are heading toward migrant boats: Aquarius, a ship chartered by Doctors Without Borders, and Iuventa, run by a German youth organization called Jugend Rettet (meaning “youth to the rescue”).

9:50 a.m.

The team huddles as we approach the rescue zone. Moyes, the team leader, says she thinks the Vos Hestia won’t go over capacity.

“We don’t need to go over capacity [...] We have 84 on board right now. We can take 300.”

The prediction will turn out to be incorrect.

On deck, the 84 people rescued earlier in the morning are being briefed on what is to come. They are bleary-eyed and dazed, and many of them are trying to sleep. But now they must make space for a few hundred more people. The atmosphere changes. Their relief gives way to sturdiness. They had allowed themselves to let go, and now they must wake themselves again.  

The same is true of the crew. Myriam Abdel-Basit, one of Save the Children’s cultural mediators, is preparing to go out on a lifeboat for the first time this rescue.

“It’s always quite nerve-wracking, because you don’t know what the situation is going to be like, and it’s always pretty unpredictable. But our main focus is to bring them back to the ship safely.”

Boats come into view

10:15 a.m.

“All stations, all stations. We can now see two rubber boats, with a further three boats behind it.”

A gathering of boats comes slowly into view, all apparently unsure of their direction. There are five migrant boats, three rescue ships (including ours) and a number of smaller unidentified boats.  

As we move closer, we can see the rubber boats are packed with people. It’s a chaotic scene.

The radio crackles again.

“We are lowering the ribs now and beginning rescue operations,” Moyes says.

With so many boats in need of help, all three ships coordinate their efforts. Each ship takes a boat. A Save the Children dinghy reaches one of them and radios in that there are 130 people on board, including one woman.

A small Libyan coast guard boat, with four armed men on board, is circling the scene. Its presence worries some of the crew. A few days before we set out to the rescue zone, footage emerged of a Libyan coast guard ship harassing and nearly crashing into another rescue ship. The coast guard has frequently taken boats full of migrants back to Libya, where they are treated as criminals and held in detention centers that are rife with torture.

The crews move fast, transferring people from the unsafe inflatable boats to the Vos Hestia. Each lifeboat can carry around 12. It takes half an hour to bring the first two groups onto the ship.

Everyone is so busy on deck that they don’t see the other boats arrive. They seem to appear out of nowhere. All of a sudden, the sea is filled with vessels of all shapes and sizes. More migrant boats come into view, along with what appear to be smuggler boats with one or two people on board.

A larger Libyan coast guard vessel also arrives at the scene. A soldier is manning a large machine-gun at the front of the ship.

12 p.m.

The chaos is taking its toll on those being rescued. The midday sun is beating down and, with so many boats in the area, no one is sure when they will be picked up.

A woman being transferred on to the Vos Hestia is slumped in the lifeboat, barely conscious. The rescue crew struggles to lift her to the ladder;, they drop her and she slumps again. Finally, a stretcher is lowered into the lifeboat and she is carried out onto the deck.

The crowd of people who have already been rescued watches on.

Three boats full of people have been rescued so far.

Overboard  

1 p.m.

One of the rescues has run into trouble. Around six people have fallen into the water near the Vos Hestia and are screaming for help. Other lifeboats rush to pull them from the water, and luckily no one drowns. Many others have died in similar circumstances.

1:19 p.m.

With more than 300 people on board, the covered deck of the Vos Hestia has reached capacity. The ship’s captain decides to start moving people to the front of the boat to make space for more rescues.

As the day progresses, more and more women and children are coming on board.

2 p.m.

The rescues are still ongoing. It’s becoming difficult to find space for everyone. Up on the bridge, the captain is in constant contact with the other rescue ships. The front of the Vos Hestia is now full, so people are filling up the sides on all levels.

Migrants at the bow of the ship who were saved hours earlier watch in amazement as the rescues continue. They are left to wonder how it might have ended so differently for them.

2:30 p.m.

Two gunshots ring out. It’s unclear which direction they’re coming from. Dozens of people are in the water. Lifeboats from all three ships rush to the area and begin pulling people out of the sea.

We learn later that members of the Libyan coast guard had boarded a migrant boat and demanded that they hand over cellphones and wallets. The coast guard had fired shots into the water next to the boat apparently to intimidate the migrants, and more than 60 people jumped overboard in panic.  

Related: Libya’s coast guard is ‘endangering lives’ of migrants trying to reach Europe

4:20 p.m.

Almost every space on the ship is now filled with a person rescued from the sea — the deck, the bow and the sides. Those not directly involved with the rescue are moving people around to make space for more.

The people rescued from the sea are tired beyond words.

8:30 p.m.

Word comes down from the captain that we are departing for Italy. The rescue is over.

As the sun sets, many are already asleep;, others are trying to find a space to do so. The rescued migrants lie down on the deck for the night, wrapped in blankets. The staff find cardboard boxes around the ship and tear them up for people to sleep on.

Some are luckier than others. A spot on the covered deck means a night’s sleep. One next to the engine room does not. Near the sides, some are already feeling the spray of the Mediterranean, even as it gets darker and they cannot see it.

10 p.m.

Karen O’Neill, one of Save the Children’s nurses, pauses for the first time since she woke up.

“It’s been absolutely exhausting,” she says. “But it’s a huge relief to know we have 551 people safely on board. We managed to save everybody and get them out of the water.”

I ask her if any particular moment stands out to her, and she points to the case of a woman and her kids.

“She’s the mother of a small child and a teenage daughter, and she couldn’t believe that she was out of the water and her children were safe. She just wept and wept and wept.

“It’s hard to process how you feel. You feel exhausted, but it’s a real sense of achievement knowing that all these people are safe because of us as a team. The alternative is that people could have drowned, so to think of the alternative is absolutely overwhelming and it’s a relief beyond words.”

The way home

It will take two days to reach Italy. The first night brings mercifully calm seas. The rescuers brought 635 migrants aboard the ship. They are asleep now on the deck, their blankets fluttering in the wind.  

The next day, as the Vos Hestia reached the southern tip of Italy, 34 migrants drowned in the same stretch of sea from which it had just returned. Many of them were children.

Postscript

In August, three months after this rescue, Save the Children halted their operations in the Mediterranean. Doctors Without Borders and Germany charity Sea-Eye also stopped.

They said they felt threatened by the Libyan coast guard’s actions at sea after frequent run-ins.

Their decision came after Libya banned foreign, nongovernmental ships from entering the search and rescue zone, in international waters.

Gen. Ayoub Qassem, a spokesman for the Libyan coast guard, said the policy was aimed at “NGOs which pretend to want to rescue illegal migrants and carry out humanitarian actions.”

The charities were already under pressure from an Italian prosecutor who called for an investigation into whether rescue boats were collaborating with people smugglers. The prosecutor said he had no proof of any collaboration. The NGOs deny the accusation.

Rob MacGillivray, Save the Children’s operations director, said: "The necessary pause in operations from charity rescue ships like ours and others will undoubtedly put lives at risk.”

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