Watching The Horizon - Search And Rescue In The Mediterranean

31/08/2016 17:17 | Updated 31 August 2016

Photo credit - Peter Eickmeyer / SOS Mediterranee

We are floating at 33°14'88.8" North, 13° 22'51.8" East, in the Mediterranean sea, about 20 nautical miles east of Tripoli, Libya. Out of my porthole I can see another magnificent sunset; the sea reflecting the sun's dying rays to create a deep, orange glow. Up on deck there is nothing but sea in every direction.

I am on board the Merchant Vessel Aquarius, run in partnership between Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee to search for, and rescue people who would otherwise lose their lives at sea. We are conducting our operations in the stretch of water between Libya and Sicily.

As a logistician, my role is to make sure all those rescued have the supplies to keep them warm and fed, to ensure we have a functioning medical facility on board, and the means to safely transport people to the Sicilian shore, and to pull people out of the sea.

Planning for supplies and keeping people warm and fed may sound straightforward. However, taking care of 650 people on a vessel with a capacity for just 350 is no mean feat, especially over 72 hours. It's worth bearing in mind that the Aquarius was not designed as a search and rescue ship, but as a research vessel - in this situation we work with what we have.

Before the Aquarius, I was working with MSF in South Sudan. My priorities there were things like making sure the generators for our operating rooms in the field kept running, water sanitation, and updating evacuation plans for staff and patients in case of sudden armed clashes. Working on a search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean is very different, but the underlying needs are the same. MSF only works in areas where there is a desperate need for emergency medical assistance. The only real difference here, is that people are drowning, instead of dying because of war, famine, malaria or a lack of access to health care.

Aside from the geographical differences, this is one of the toughest and most intense things I've ever done.

Each day we have people on watch, spotting boats on the horizon. We also work closely with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. We share information on the coordinates of boats we find, and whoever is best placed will conduct a rescue. When it's us, we head to the right coordinates and our search and rescue team scramble for our small motorboats to intercept dinghies or wooden boats in distress. They are always overcrowded.

Photo Credit - Alva White / MSF

Recently we had one of our longest days. We conducted three search and rescue operations before sundown. Everyone was exhausted. But as it began to get dark we received another distress call. We headed to the right coordinates, and managed to find a boat full of people in clear distress, but as the distance closed, we lost them in the dark. You can't imagine how it feels to lose 125 people in the middle of the sea. We searched for nine hours, with the ship's massive floodlights sweeping the water in every direction. Truly it was like looking for a needle in a hay-stack. Our boat was already full of people who needed to be brought to shore, and the supplies wouldn't last forever. But by chance, a small flicker appeared on our radar. It disappeared several times, but eventually we found them: a boat full of exhausted people without food or water, including 29 who were under 18 and five under fives - it was actually the first birthday of one of the little boys.

Photo credit - Alva White / MSF

The reactions of people we rescue range from euphoria to total collapse. Often people are acutely confused and incoherent from the inhalation of petrol fumes - many are in need of medical attention. Most of the people we rescue have nothing at all. Some only have the shorts and t-shirts they wore to make the journey.

I am no expert on Libya, or the politics of the situation there. But what I see is the physical condition of the people fleeing, many of them bear the marks of captivity, of brutality.

Among one of the groups we rescued were three boys aged eight, 10 and 12. It's hard to forget them. They had crossed countries together and a sea crossing without parents or guardians. When I was their age, I struggled to get the train alone.

Two things have surprised me while I've been here. The first is the number of children making this crossing. From babies to unaccompanied minors - it's difficult to get used to seeing children in this situation. The second is that despite their hunger, exhaustion and condition, so many of the people we rescue say 'how can I help?' despite the intensity of their experiences, they lose no time in offering to contribute.

Aside from the difficult things we see on this boat (and there are many), there are also remarkable moments. Watching the reactions of people as they see dolphins for the first time, swimming alongside the boat; or a sunrise at sea; or witnessing the quiet that falls over the ship as we enter into the Sicilian port with its beautiful sailing boats and architecture, a strikingly different world for many, and a reminder that this is by no means the end of their journey.

I don't call the people we rescue migrants, or asylum seekers or refugees. These words have been used so much in politics, in the media, and quite honestly I think that these words have lost some of their significance, they turn human beings into statistical problems. These are people, some of whom have endured unspeakable and lasting cruelty, all of whom have a right to life and dignity.

Edward Taylor, MSF Logistician

To see more about Edward's work on MV Aquarius please take a look at the MSF blogs site here -