Searching for search and rescue

19 May 2016
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Answering the call for my next assignment with MSF required no thought at all – it was an instant “yes, I’m in”.

It is a crisis alarmingly close to home and makes me rage with frustration. Europe's inhumane treatment puts people through such extreme and unnecessary danger, when they are exercising the most basic of human rights: our right to flee, to seek asylum, to be safe.

I’m headed to join the new MSF team on board the search and rescue vessel 'Aquarius' run by SOS Med in partnership with MSF, to share some of the stories of those rescued, and to support wider campaigns on the refugee crisis.

Under the direction of the Italian authorities, the Aquarius assists boats in the Mediterranean – mainly rubber dinghies, overcrowded with people and left drifting, most of which set sail from Libya and are in distress and at risk of capsizing.

"Call it what you will – #refugeecrisis, #migrantcrisis #peopleinflight #peopleonthemove #Europesrefugeecrisis – I think it is quite evident that this is a global refugee crisis, of a magnitude hard to fathom, for which everybody needs to take responsibility."
alva whitecommunications officer

The humanitarian organisation SOS Méditeranée are the search and rescue experts, who coordinate bringing people safely on board the Aquarius. The MSF team greets them by treating their medical needs, and providing them with food, clothes and a friendly face. The partnership has just started, and in only a few days on the water, they have already assisted more than 230 people. The BBC also happened to be on board…

And me…well, I have been in Sicily for three days now and am chasing the Aquarius around the coast to try and jump on when it docks to disembark those rescued. Late last night we left Trapani, Sicily, with a van packed full of medical supplies and rescue kits with blankets and clothes.

An hour into the journey we get a call to say that the docking port has changed – to Crotone, in southern Italy, more than 550 km away from us.

“How do I get you to Crotone in time for the boat docking, with all the cargo…?” the remarkable logistician gasps, head in hands. Of course he finds a solution, as is the way of remarkable MSF logisticians.

So, I am currently the passenger of a very hospitable Sicilian trucker, Giuseppe, driving across Sicily, hopping on a ferry to Italy, to hopefully meet up with the MSF team, all with the clock ticking.

And I’m happy to admit I’m nervous. I have never spent weeks at sea; people keep mentioning the intense seasickness; who knows what can happen out there? It is all an unknown. But really there is no reason to be nervous at all – I’m so privileged to be in the safe hands of a team of experts, on a massive, sturdy vessel, with a medical team and crew.

But every time I feel a bit scared about it, and when I do get waves of trepidation, my mind shifts to those people standing on the Libyan shore, or any shore, waves lapping at their feet as they have to step onto a boat that is visibly unsafe, overcrowded and incapable of withstanding the journey they are undertaking, carrying only the hope that someone will find them and bring them to safety.

They must know that many have not survived the journey they are about to take. We will never really know just how many lives were lost in this way. They must feel an excruciating level of fear, putting their lives and their families’ lives at risk. I’m just so sorry the world is putting these people through this.

Call it what you will – #refugeecrisis, #migrantcrisis #peopleinflight #peopleonthemove #Europesrefugeecrisis – I think it is quite evident that this is a global refugee crisis, of a magnitude hard to fathom, for which everybody needs to take responsibility. And it shows no sign of being stemmed with inadequate political deals or tactics that act as a flimsy bandage over a gaping wound which will not heal or go away without serious attention. Rather than trying half-heartedly to get rid of symptoms, we need to treat the root of the problem.

So I hope this blog will be full of their words, their experiences and their thoughts.

Well, if I ever manage to get on that boat...

…which thanks to Giuseppe I did.