This is the time of year when the small fragile boats, known in Spanish as pateras, try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The central Mediterranean route is the most dangerous way to reach the continent – this year alone, 632 people have died making the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Despite this, thousands of migrants victims of smuggling groups risk their lives boarding these overcrowded ships along the Libyan and Tunisian coasts in the hope of reaching Europe.
Most boat crossings take place at this time of year to take advantage of the warm weather. But just as it is the time of the crossings, it is also the time when non-profit organizations such as Médecins sans frontières (MSF) mobilize to save migrants from drowning at sea. This association has been working since 2015 in the Mediterranean. , where she saved 81,540 people. This year, he returns with a new rescue vessel, the Geo Barents, a massive 76.95-meter-long ship, carrying tons of clothing, food and medicine to aid those rescued on the deadliest migration route to Europe.
the Geo Barents is already buzzing with activity. The ship left Alesund in Norway on May 13 and crossed the Atlantic beyond northwest Europe and the French coast before arriving in the Spanish port of Algeciras. From there, he proceeded to the search and rescue (SAR) zone in front of the Libyan coast. The crew takes advantage of these days of relative calm to study and review the protocol for rescuing people at sea. The time is also used to familiarize themselves with the enormous vessel, which once searched for gas and oil in the Gulf of Mexico. . Now its goal is to search for migrants in the vast sea.
the Geo Barents is the largest search and rescue vessel of the six the NGO has worked with so far. It has a capacity of 300 people and carries a ton of medicine, 1,200 blankets and 12.5 tons of food, which will allow those on board to survive for weeks on the high seas. Barbara Deck, a 33-year-old Canadian who worked in Sudan and Syria, leads the mission. Every morning at 8:30 am on point, she brings together the 19 members of the crew – which includes doctors, cultural mediators, logistics experts and lifeguards – to organize the day ahead.
Weather permitting, the team will conduct a rescue drill with two Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs). The chief of the rescue operation, Ani Montes, is overseeing the process from the command post, where Salah Dusk, a cultural mediator who speaks Arabic, English and Norwegian is also present. There are four lifeguards on each RHIB. At RHIB2, the leader instructs others on how to maintain the stability of the boat when the migrants are brought on board and taken to the Geo Barents. “[The migrants] are going through so much hardship that it is essential that they feel safe, ”says Katrin Brubakk, MSF mental health officer. The two RHIBs – which can each carry 35 people – contain large bags with 30 life jackets. The exercise begins.
An adult-sized doll, dressed in a wet orange costume to simulate the weight of a migrant after being in the water for hours, is thrown into the sea. One of the boats speeds up and turns to save it. as quickly as possible. On board are David Molina and Julie Melichar who lift the doll from under her armpits to bring her onto the boat.
Once out of the water, rescuers say maintaining a calm is essential to ensure the RHIB reaches the Geo Barents no problem. Once the boats reach either side of the ship, the rescued person must use all of their remaining energy to climb up the metal ladder and onto the Geo Barents. This is where Madeleine Habib and Ángel Sierra will be waiting, the latter attached to the ship with a safety harness. His outstretched hand will likely be the first migrants hold when they board. Once the exercise is over, the team analyzes what went well and what could be improved. Everything must be clear, especially since this year the team has the added difficulty of containing a possible coronavirus infection.
Security measures against the coronavirus
Stéphanie, the head of the MSF medical team who preferred not to give her last name, takes advantage of this downtime to prepare a short course on face masks: FPP2 for migrants; hygienic for surveillance rounds; and washable white fabric for those who have just been rescued.
Meanwhile, Dr Georgina Woolveridge explains the lengthy and laborious process of putting on and taking off personal protective equipment (PPE), which all crew members must wear. “You have to imagine that you are covered in a liquid and you don’t want to splash anybody,” she says. Silvia Kennedy, a British nurse experienced in treating coronavirus patients, also explains to the crew how to identify diseases such as scabies, common in migrants due to the poor conditions they have lived in countries like La Libya.
The MSF team divided the ship into three zones: red, orange and green. If anyone has symptoms compatible with Covid-19, they will be taken to an isolation area. A special room has also been set up for rescuers to leave their clothes, which will be immediately disinfected and washed. As soon as the migrants are on the Geo Barents, the doctors will take their temperature. The migrants will then be divided into two bridges: one for women and children, and another for men. During the day, they can visit each other, but not at night.
So far this year, around 13,757 migrants have reached the Italian coast, up from 4,237 the previous year, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. “This means an increase in the number of boat crossings, but also an increase in the number of lives lost,” explains Deck. It is impossible to predict what will happen this summer, but it is clear that many migrants will attempt the dangerous passage and will need to be rescued.
English version by Melissa Kitson.