14 Mar 2016

Saving terrified migrants’ lives at sea

“She was just lying there,” says a member of he MOAS rescue team, as we scan the horizon, in the growing dawn light, on the bridge of the Topaz Responder.


“Right there in a boat full of men – complete strangers – she just lay there. Well I was on the phone all the time to the hospital in Malta telling me what to do. You know – get towels and that. But I am a mariner. I am not a midwife.”

No, John Hamilton is search and rescue officer for the NGO MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station). He is not a midwife.

But this is what search and rescue can mean across the Mediterranean where MOAS have saved more than 12,000 migrants and refugees since mid 2014. A Somali woman giving birth in an open boat, crammed full of strangers, at sea off Libya.

Tonight on the Topaz Responder’s bridge, here in the eastern Aegean just off the coast of Turkey, he describes how migrant boats are sent out by Turkish traffickers and told just to point the boat at the lights on top of an island eight miles across the straits.

It is auto pilot. Without the trained pilot bit. Afghans or Yazidis or Iraqis who have seen the sea only in films or books.

Now at night, in hopelessly overloaded craft, they are pointed at destiny or death in the pitch-black moonless nights and heavy cloud  of this week.

From more than a mile offshore you can see the piteous piles of discarded orange life-vests on the rocky end of a bleak island inhabited only by goats.

“It is terrible. Sometimes they get confused,” John says, leaning over the charts on the bridge. “They often end up back in Turkey, throw down their life-vests and struggle up the cliffs only  to be told they are back in Turkey, having risked all and spent so much money on the traffickers.”

Another MOAS team member describes how the people are terrified when rescued and brought aboard the vessel. If you are Afghan, Syrian or Iraqi, you have profound reason to fear what anybody in uniform will be able to do to you at will.

Aboard this vessel, it becomes clear it is different and often the children seem to realise it before the adults, naturally conditioned to be suspicious and fearful and rightly so.

But once the realisation breaks through that they have come to help not harm, it is common for men and women alike to bend and kiss over and over again the pristine paintwork of this superbly-equipped and utterly rustless ship.

But the work can be frustrating. Minutes of tension in the black night and course alterations dictated by a radar “contact” reveal nothing at five this morning, probably just roosting seabirds.

In the first light of a beastly cold and rain-spattered morning:  another alert. This time visual. Something sizeable and white in the water – an upturned hull of yet another foundered migrant boat, unequal to these seas?

In the end it was just a large polystyrene box at the mercy of wind and current blindly on a voyage to nowhere.

The game goes on all across these waters. The lethal game. Science tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and organised  international crime appears to do so too.

Because wherever the hole is plugged, the leak springs up anew elsewhere. Nato now augments the work of Turkish and Greek navies in the eastern Aegean, as well as a host of coastguard cutters from both nations.

But it isn’t enough. Flimsy and inadequate bright orange see-me life-vests are now replaced by even worse quality black ones: don’t get seen by the coastguards.

Well, you may evade the coastguard more easily in black,  but you may not be seen by potential rescuers either if you are not careful.

Aboard the Topaz Responder one of the medic’s brought the scalpel to bear upon these black “buoyancy aids”, which were unseen here until last week. They are pathetic affairs, even my untrained eye can see the flotation is far short of what it should be.

Being invisible, having a false sense of bouyancy – the journey that was already lethal in so many cases, just got a whole lot more dangerous.

And the Somali woman? She gave birth to a healthy baby girl and John Hamilton was relieved to get back to conventional – if ever unpredictable – lifesaving.

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