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Rescue At Sea: The Inside Story Of A High Stakes Transfer

15/05/2017 17:20
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At first glance Tarek* doesn't stand out. He is among a group of over 300 refugees and migrants that have just been helped aboard Save the Children's rescue ship after fraught, life threatening days at sea.

But Tarek is the only one with white patches in his hair. He says he is just 15 years old. On one so young, these are often signs of traumatic experiences.

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15-year-old Tarek's family were killed in Libya. Photo: Save the Children/Hanna Adcock

Once Tarek and everyone else on board has slept, rested and eaten, we talk. He says he is from Libya, where violent turmoil has engulfed the country and taken everything from him. His family was killed. He was forced to watch as his brother was murdered in front of him. There is no-one and nothing left for him at home. There is no 'home'. He begged on the streets for a year until he could afford what he said was the only way out. And early one morning he was herded onto a rickety wooden boat alongside hundreds of others, each with their own reasons to make this desperate, last ditch bid for a safe future.

For 48 hours, bad weather in the Mediterranean has been making rescue operations incredibly difficult. It's the night before, and waves lash against the port holes. The ship rolls from side to side sending anything not tied down or put away scuttling across the room. Somewhere, something smashes. There are a lot of sleepless nights on board the Vos Hestia, and some green faces the following morning as seasickness takes hold.

The news comes early in the morning. The Italian coastguard, which co-ordinates our rescues, has called on us to relieve another rescue ship. The Iuventa, operated by German group Jugend Rettet, is overwhelmed after performing multiple rescues. Just about every rescue ship in the Mediterranean is either disembarking people or tied up elsewhere. More than 8,000 refugees and migrants have been pulled from unseaworthy boats in three days that has pushed search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to breaking point. For miles around, there is nothing but open sea, which has already claimed the lives of more than 870 people this year. European states must support Italy with search-and-rescue operations. Saving lives - not border control - should be the over-riding priority.

Ships like the Iuventa perform a vital role by getting to the flimsy, overcrowded boats fast and stabilising them, then taking on board as many people as they can. But they don't have room for the food and water needed for hundreds of refugees and migrants on the 36-hour journey to the safety of dry land. So they need to transfer them to another ship like ours.

The Iuventa and those it has rescued have just spent the night withstanding the same conditions we have. Though by now, a large commercial tanker has stopped and positioned itself to shield them from the worst of the high winds.

Our ship, the Vos Hestia, is en route to the rescue zone but we're still hours away. "Can we go any faster?" No. We're already at full speed.

We receive word that there are a number of pregnant women on board, two in a condition described as 'critical'. "Get the extra beds in the overflow clinic ready," instructs our doctor.

First in view is the huge commercial tanker. Then, from our vantage point on the bridge the outline of the Iuventa gradually forms on the horizon - followed by the sight of hundreds of people crammed onto every inch of the deck.

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A technically difficult manoeuvre - the view from Save the Children's rescue ship the Vos Hestia as the three ships draw closer to make the transfer. Photo: Save the Children/Hanna Adcock

Usually people would be transferred between the two vessels by smaller, fast rescue boats lowered from our ship. But today conditions are too dangerous for that. The Iuventa and the Vos Hestia will have to pull side by side so people can step across. It's a technically difficult manoeuvre and the atmosphere is tense. Both ships need to stay sheltered by the commercial tanker as we edge closer. All the while the tanker is moving too, because due to its size it will start to roll if it stops. The Iuventa rocks as it's buffeted by the waves but eventually we are in position - within touching distance.

One by one refugees and migrants come aboard. A number of pregnant women are too weak to stand, suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. Some attempt a couple of steps before giving out. The strain of their ordeal has been too much. We immediately stretcher them to the onboard clinic for treatment from our medical team.

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A number of pregnant women were too weak to stand. Photo: Save the Children/Hanna Adcock

More than 300 people are now on our deck, including around twenty thought to be unaccompanied children, Tarek among them.

The Iuventa was already full when they found Tarek's boat, and was forced to pull away as they got perilously close. Panic took hold and Tarek was among those who leapt into the sea and swam towards the Iuventa before being pulled in to safety.

Now he is in the care of our specialist child protection team who are providing support and activities to help him recover from the traumatic experiences he has been through. And our team on shore in Italy will be there to help Tarek understand and navigate his new surroundings.

But until the EU provides safe and legal routes for those seeking safer futures, people - including children like Tarek - will continue to risk their lives to reach the sanctuary of Europe. The 300 people on board the Vos Hestia will be far from the last, and the Mediterranean will continue to be a mass unmarked grave for children.

This transfer took place on 17th April 2017. Support Save the Children's search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean.

*Name changed to protect identity

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