In the port of Marseille, the fluorescent orange hull of the 77 metre long Aquarius can be seen from far away.
Seafarers are loading dozens of boxes onto the deck. Forming a human chain, doctors and nurses wearing lifejackets bearing the logo “Médecins du monde” (Doctors of the World) carry them inside the boat. Despite the tension and tiredness, it is a well practised routine. These are the final preparations before departure.
On Saturday the Aquarius, which arrived in the Mediterranean city two days earlier having been chartered from the Baltic, set sail for an unprecedented mission to the Strait of Sicily, off the Italian and Libyan coasts: the biggest refugee rescue operation organised by an NGO, the SOS Méditerranée.
The project began at the end of 2014, the brainchild of Klaus Vogel, a German merchant navy captain, and Sophie Beau, a Marseillaise involved for a long time in humanitarian work.
It was when he learnt that Italy was going to end its Mare Nostrum operation, aimed at saving migrants at sea, that Klaus Vogel decided to launch his own project: “It is a civilian, European initiative to rescue people from a situation to which the politicians have failed to provide an adequate response. But we remain apolitical, we simply want to save lives.”
The association has succeeded in raising an impressive 950,000 euros (USD 1,053,000) thanks to Internet fund-raising. This has enabled it to charter the Aquarius for three months.
“When I went to Lampedusa for the first time, I met the mayor Giusi Nicolini. He said “You are crazy, but I’m with you.” That was very important for us,” said the captain. “I thought we were pushing our luck but we had to see it through because civil society must act”.
Seafarers, rescue workers, doctors and nurses
A 25-person crew – seafarers, rescue workers, doctors and nurses – coordinates the operation on the boat which can take up to 500 shipwrecked refugees. SOS Méditerranée plans to take direct action in the area.
To carry out their rescues, the teams will be in contact with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) based in Rome, which receives all the distress signals.
« They will alert us and the people we rescue will come on board and be given medical attention before being taken to a port in Sicily or the south of Italy » explains Sophie Beau, relieved to at last be able to set foot on the Aquarius.
On board, a team from Médecins du monde (MDM) will treat the refugees. A long straight corridor leads to an improvised clinic in two cabins. One will be a consulting room, the other will be for more serious cases.
Anne Kamel, the MDM’s medical coordinator, is putting hundreds of boxes of medication away in the cupboards.
“The most complicated aspect of this for us is adapting to life at sea. We are trying to plan as much as possible, but there are lots of things we just don’t know. How many people we are going to rescue, how serious their medical conditions are. From exhaustion to minor operations or resuscitation, we have to be prepared for everything.”
Kits have been prepared for the survivors. Inside, there is a survival blanket, a towel, water, socks... “There are also showers to treat the chemical burns caused by the skin being in contact for days with the petrol that’s in the bottom of the boats”, adds Marize Etiennoul, one of the two nurses taking part in the mission.
“The hardest thing will be the distress”
The Mare Nostrum rescue operation that went as far as the Libyan coast was replaced in 2014 by operation Triton, which aims above all at controlling the borders and is restricted to European territorial waters, along the Italian coast.
In 2015, 3,771 people perished in the Mediterranean. A report issued on Friday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provides new figures: since the beginning of January, 410 people have drowned between Turkey and Europe, 35 times as many as during the same period in 2015.
“Europe does not guarantee the safety of the refugees’ journeys, so we have a duty to do so as European citizens” believes Anne Kamel.
“People are dying on our doorstep, before our very eyes, we cannot just let them drown.”
Jean Passot, with boots on his feet and a white helmet on his head, feels that “the hardest thing is going to being encountering distress and death”. The 27-year-old, one of the five seafaring rescue workers, is motivated by the ancestral principal of the unconditional rescue of all persons in danger at sea. He will be on look-out duty and will be in charge of the rescue boats sent out to recover the refugees. This is his first humanitarian mission, but he says he is prepared, “mentally”.
In the Strait of Sicily, the number of crossings since the beginning of 2016 is already six times higher than in 2015: nearly 6,000 people have made the crossing to reach Europe.
“This is not the busiest route, but it is the most dangerous, because it is such a great distance and the crossing takes days” explains Sophie Beau.
« And then, there aren’t any boats to rescue them, and the mortality rate is 2 per cent. Europe has tightened up border security so much that people have to risk their lives to come here.”
At the moment, SOS Méditerranée has only hired the Aquarius for three months. “If we stop in May it will be disastrous because spring and summer are when refugees are most likely to try to make the crossing” says Sophie Beau, who is launching a new appeal for funds.
One month at sea costs the association 300,000 euros (332.000 USD), but it wants to do more than respond to the immediate emergency. “We would like above all to make this a long term rescue operation, because we need this civilian approach more than we need the military and security-based approach of the European States.”
Refugees, a highly sensitive political issue
In Europe, the migrant question is a highly sensitive political issue.
The European Union (EU) seems to be heading, more and more, towards the progressive closure of the Balkans route.
At last week’s meeting of the European Council, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras set out a goal: to ensure that no European State closes its borders unilaterally. Greece fears that neighbouring Macedonia will close its borders, with the added risk that thousands of refugees will be trapped on its territory, while many more continue to arrive on the islands of the Aegean Sea – 80,000 have arrived since the beginning of the year.
The EU has demanded that Greece improves the conditions for receiving refugees and has deplored the months of delay in opening up the “hotspots”: the centres for registering and sorting refugees into those who are fleeing war zones and are eligible for international protection – principally Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans and Afghans - and the economic migrants.
There are four “hotspots” in operation today. But Greece, whose economy is still on its knees, does not have the means to sustain the cost of housing, feeding and treating refugees over time, as the bombardments of Alep in Syria drive thousands more Syrian refugees out of their country.