Mediterranean Sea 2022 @ Candida Lobes/MSF

The Inside Story of an NGO Rescue Ship That Saves Migrants From Dying at Sea

It has been an exceptionally deadly year for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

The first eight months of 2023 have been the deadliest on record since 2017, with over 2,000 deaths and counting. There are a few reasons for this. The preferred routes that migrants and refugees take has shifted. Whereas before the most popular route was from Libya to Greece (the so-called “Aegean Route”), for the last several months that has shifted west. More and more migrants are now departing from Tunisia to Italy. The smugglers are equally unscrupulous, but the kind of warn-down metal boats used by Tunisian smugglers are particularly unseaworthy. Still, an increasing number of people are willing to take this risk.

But perhaps the biggest reason that deaths at sea are skyrocketing this year is because European governments have enacted policies to make these crossings dangerous. One can infer that some European policy makers believe that increasing the probability of death-at-sea may deter migrants from making the journey in the first place.

They are obviously wrong and their policies are resulting in disaster.

The European Union cooperates with the “Libyan Coast Guard” to intercept ships in Libya’s territorial waters, and then detain captured migrants where they are left to languish indefinitely in brutal jails. Should migrants make it to European soil, they could fall victim to a “pushback” like the one recently revealed in a New York Times investigation. Twelve migrants — including a 6-month-old — made it to land. But they were caught by Greek authorities, transferred to a Greek Coast Guard vessel and forced onto an inflatable raft where they were left adrift in the Aegean sea. That really happened.

Governments are also seeking to criminalize the work of humanitarian groups and NGO’s that operate rescue ships. The government of Italy has been particularly aggressive. Four crew members of a rescue ship credited with saving 14,000 lives are now on trial in Sicily, for the crime of “facilitating illegal migration.”

Italy is also putting up administrative barriers to obstruct the work of NGO rescue ships. New laws now require that after a rescue, an NGO ship must immediately head to a port determined by government authorities. Invariably, these ships are ordered to a port as far away as possible from migrant routes. Ships must travel days up the Italian coast, rather than a closer port where migrants can disembark so the rescue ship can return to patrolling deadly waters.

This is exactly what happened to MSF’s Geo Barents earlier this month. I caught up with Margot Bernard of MSF who was on board this rescue ship when it responded to a distress call, after which they were forced to a port in Northern Italy.

When I spoke with Margot Bernard last week, I wanted to learn both about the mechanics of these rescues and also the obstruction imposed on their humanitarian work by European governments. Our full conversation is well worth your 25 minutes. The podcast interview is available wherever you listen to podcasts.

The excerpt below tells the harrowing story of a recent rescue. It has been edited for clarity.

Margot Bernard: We can talk about our latest rescue, which took place last week. We generally go to sea and try to patrol or respond to distress calls that we receive from different organizations. In this case, we received the distress alert. And before we arrived there, we were lucky enough to have the plane of Sea-Watch (another NGO) supporting us. They were able to locate the place where the boat was in distress and lead us to that boat. Such a collaboration is actually key in ensuring that we find people quickly, because otherwise when we receive a distress call we go to the latest known location. But sometimes it takes hours and hours of searching for small boats in order to be able to find it, especially after currents might take them somewhere else. So in that case, we received the location of the boat, thanks Sea-Watch, and they could lead us to exactly where the people in distress were.

Mark Leon Goldberg: How long did it take for you to actually reach the distressed migrants?

Margot Bernard: So in that particular case, I want to say 2 hours, but I might be wrong. It can take much more time depending on where we are. And this is why also it is very important that all vessels respond to distress calls, because it shouldn’t be that we have to travel for 7 hours to find a boat in distress if there are other vessels in the vicinity.

Mark Leon Goldberg: What was the scene when you reached the people who needed help.

Margot Bernard: There was a very high level of urgency because we heard from the plane that people were in the water. They could already see this. And in that case the main concern was to try and locate the people who were in the water, and trying to make sure that everybody who was on board the boat was able to disembark safely onto the Geo Barents so that we didn’t risk anyone else falling into the water.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So the boat was just kind of drifting?

Margot Bernard: It is actually quite compelling story. And it is something that the survivors have shared with us, explaining exactly what happened to them. They were at sea for five to six days before they were rescued. They were on the ship with 50 people, thinking at the beginning that there would be only 35. When they started traveling, there were only given an online compass and a few gallons of fuel. And usually on these boats, you also don’t really have people who are qualified to captain your boat.

So what happened to this specific group is that on the first day, the apps that they were using as a compass stopped working. On the second day, they started asking their way with the fishing vessels that they could find, but they didn’t really get an answer. So they continued going in the same direction. Then they started seeing other migrant boats on their way and started following them. But that same night the weather got much worse. So with the waves, their engine started getting some water inside and the engine broke down. So they lost sight of the migrants boat that they were following.

They stopped, and this is where they started drifting. So when they started drifting they had no idea of their direction, and no idea what would happen to them. At this point, they would have done anything to be rescued, but they had no way of finding their way or calling for help. They continued drifting. They told us that they were drinking sea water, knowing very well that sea water is not good for you, but they would drink a pan scoop of water in the morning, one in the evening, in order to survive. People fell in the water when they saw a container floating in the water that they thought was containing potentially fresh water. So a person jumped in order to try and catch it. But as he was struggling, two more people jumped into the water to try and help him. But the current was too strong and it took away those people. And we spoke to more people who told us that they were also thinking of jumping in the water to help them, but realizing that they couldn’t also swim against the currents. So they made a rope with clothes that they took off to try and throw it to those people. But that didn’t work. The rope was too short.

Eventually they decided that their best shot was to try and get to the oil platforms that they could see at night, thanks to the light, and to ask for help. So they used their shoes as paddles to try and move the boat forward and make it to one of the oil platforms to ask for rescue for the three people who had fallen at sea. And this is around the time that they were finally rescued.

So when we did the rescue, our crew took 47 people off that boat and onto the Geo Barents. But it’s from listening to their stories that they realized that three people were still in the water. So our search and rescue team did this search for 3 hours. after 3 hours and a half, they managed to find two of them, but the third person was never was never found, unfortunately, and they had to call off to search.

Margot Bernard then explains the systematic failings of European government and their ongoing efforts to obstruct the work of humanitarian rescue boats like the MSF Barents. The full episode is freely available here and well worth your time.