Photo - Ferry Schippers / MSF
Frank is on deck, watching the sea. Tall and broad, he cuts a striking figure onboard the search and rescue vessel MV Aquarius. Soon after arriving onboard, he began helping with the clean-ing, and heavy lifting. He's remarkably strong, and he motivates others to help as well. Life onboard this ship is hectic and there isn't always time for conversation. Soon we'll arrive in the Italian port of Brindisi and he'll disembark. I see that he is crying. His face is creased and tears roll freely down his face. It's unsettling to see a man his size weep, and it's a shock to see the normally cheerful, optimistic man in this state. He speaks about his brother. They began their journey together. They were meant to arrive together. Not so long ago he watched his brother be shot and killed. Now he's facing his new life alone. And on arriving in Italy he will have to to call his family back home and tell them that he he survived, but his younger brother did not.
Why am I telling you about Frank? Isn't he just another one of the thousands of people looking for opportunities in Europe? Won't he take a job from a native European? Why don't we send him back to Africa? You might well ask. Since I began working on the rescue vessel Aquarius, for Médecins Sans Frontières, these are the kind of questions I've come to expect. People post them daily on social media.
I'm telling you about Frank because you've never met him. He eats, he breathes, and he has a family. I'm telling you about Frank because he's like you and me. He wants to earn a living, to meet new people and to make something of himself. I am telling you about Frank because if we had turned him and the rest of the people on his boat back to Libya, as so many people have suggested, it would mean sending him back to conditions that we hear of daily. The people we rescue speak with pain and fear when they describe extortion, torture, kidnapping, rape and re-peated sexual violence. We hear of enforced manual labour, of beatings that not even pregnant women are spared. We hear these things, and we see the malnourishment, the scars and the desperation of those we rescue.
Photo - Marco Panzetti / SOS MEDITERANEE
It isn't just men like Frank trying to escape home. There are women too, and children. The other day a woman called Maria* said that the day we pulled her from the Mediterranean was "the most beautiful day of her life". I will never know how she summoned that joy. A year ago she was caught by Boko Haram and repeatedly raped for two months. When she escaped, she was caught by another man, and sold into enforced prostitution once more. Eventually she was told that if she would accept four more weeks of rape and beatings, she would be given a place on a dinghy in the Mediterranean.
I'm not here to teach anyone morals. I'm not a politician who needs your votes, and I don't have all the answers. But I want you to know that whenever we talk about the 'refugee problem' or 'irregular migration', we're talking about people. All of them have mothers, all of them have have hopes and fears. In recent weeks, my own government, of the United Kingdom, publicly asserted that people rescued off the coast of Libya should be turned around and sent back. Sending people back means we don't have to see them; it negates our responsibility. It means 'out of sight, out of mind'. But the truth is, pretending a problem doesn't exist isn't the same as solving a problem.
When history is discussed we often ask one another, 'How could people let that happen? Why
didn't anyone do anything?' Hindsight, perhaps lends us a courage that we lack at the right time.
But it's worth considering that history will either laud or condemn us for the way we treat those
in need. The way each of us reacts to this issue will make the difference. The test is ours to
pass or fail, and the time is now.
MV Aquarius is a Search and Rescue Vessel run in partnership between Médecins Sans Fron-tières/Doctors Without Borders and SOS MEDITERANEE.
*Name has been changed