Working aboard the Aquarius is a “grim job” - and that’s direct from the mouth of one of the search and rescue (SAR) ship’s hands.
For a period in August the 77-metre-long vessel was home to 38 crew, 272 migrants, four reporters - including one from HuffPost UK, and eight corpses.
Operated by the NGO SOS Méditerranée, the Aquarius sails in the warm yet often deadly waters of the Mediterranean, rescuing people on the last leg of a journey from North Africa to Europe that more often than not includes imprisonment, torture, rape and sometimes even slavery.
Yet trying to save the lives of people in the most desperate of situations has recently seen them being branded an enemy of Europe by a number of different groups and individuals.
Critics of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean accuse them of effectively being partners to people-smugglers, or as people like Katie Hopkins and the members of the Defend Europe group put it, a free “taxi service” operating with such frequency it’s like “the Heathrow of the Med”.
But for those who are packed aboard the flimsy boats and pushed into the sea off the coast of Libya, the NGO’s are saviours, bridging the gap between death at sea and life on European land.
As one migrant told HuffPost UK from aboard the Aquarius: “We all suffered so much. All the people you see here have come a very long way.
“They have died inside for a long time. Even their families must believe they are dead.
“Today is like resurrection.”
The ongoing migrant crisis needs a global solution that addresses the economic, political and cultural failings of all the countries involved - a monumental task that has so far proved elusive.
At the last count 120,137 people had crossed from North Africa to Europe so far in 2017, 82% via Italy.
Around 2,410 have died - that we know of.
The NGOs concede their “ambulance service” actions are merely a temporary stop-gap, but until a permanent answer is found the flow of migrants is unlikely to stop and aid agencies are stuck in a Catch-22 situation - if they continue rescues they may encourage more, but if they stop, people will die.
So just who is to blame for the continuing flow of migrants making their way to Europe’s shores and what is really happening on the Med?
The opinions are as varied as the tragedies that created it. Here we explain how the different players invested in the crisis see those operating out at sea.
The crew are life-savers
I think of us more like an ambulance service until political solutions are taken on a global scale, and a European solution to this humanitarian crisis is found. Till Rummenhohl, (SAR) team member for SOS Méditerranée
Those working aboard Aquarius and behind the scenes are under no illusions about their role in the migrant crisis - they’re a temporary solution to a problem that requires global action.
“We’ve made it clear throughout this mission that we don’t see ourselves as a solution to this problem and the problem is far deeper and wider than a rescue ship in the Mediterranean could achieve.
“There needs to be wider systemic change on a policy level to deal with this - anyone who sees one of these boats will quickly understand that this is not a solution, Max, Deputy SAR Coordinator for SOS Méditerranée onboard the Aquarius, tells HuffPost.
He adds: “On a more fundamental level, it’s a pretty grim job - you regularly see people in a pretty horrific state of being and I don’t think any of us out here enjoy that or wish for it to continue.”
The high probability of witnessing people drown and the certainty of seeing human beings in the most desperate of situations, combined with cramped conditions, seasickness and a heatwave that saw temperatures reach the mid 40s, aren’t enough to deter the crew from doing their jobs.
HuffPost witnessed a number of incidents at sea, most notably a shooting victim and the transfer from another ship of eight dead bodies.
“Among the dead were five men and three women, pretty young between 20 and maybe 35,” says Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator.
“As far as we can see the cause of death was asphyxiation and people also had fuel burns and we could also see abrasions on their skin where people had been crushed.”
Despite their work, the last thing the crew want is for the attention to be on them.
“On the 1st of August, the Aquarius chartered by SOS Mediterranee was asked to accept the transfer eights dead bodies onboard,” says Mathilde Auvillain, Communication Officer for SOS Mediteranee.
“But in the press, this was not the story. The story was the Code of Conduct and the [Defend Europe ship] C-Star. Not a minute of silence for these victims and their families.
“Instead, a storm of polemics about NGOs accused to be colluded with criminals? Nobody wondered how on earth volunteers who sacrifice their professional and personal lives to go and save lives at sea could be colluding with criminals who torture and push people to death?”
This accusation of “collusion” gained traction over the summer as NGO rescue missions in the Mediterranean came under increasing scrutiny.
The Aquarius crew are dismissive of the allegations.
Till Rummenhohl, (SAR) team member for SOS Méditerranée, says: “I think of us more like an ambulance service until political solutions are taken on a global scale, and a European solution to this humanitarian crisis is found.”
The crew are occasional business partners
From Libya to Italy $1000 (discounts for group). The time spent arriving at battleships is only 3 to 5 hours. A Facebook page advertising 'immigration' from Libya to Italy
Those in the business of people-smuggling see it as just that - a business, confirmed by quotes from the few who have spoken publicly.
Similarly, the Facebook pages on which some advertise their services are classified as “Travel Company” or “Business & Economy Website”.
An integral part of their business model is the role played by boats such as the Aquarius - the dinghies onto which they pack migrants aren’t meant to reach Italy, only the SAR ships.
However, evidence gathered by HuffPost suggests NGO ships are not singled out by people smugglers from other types of vessels, such as those from the navy or coastguard.
The quote above is from a Facebook page written in Arabic that translates as “A way of Immigration from Libya to Italy”.
Repeated posts speak of “flights” across the Mediterranean from the northern Libyan city of Sabratah - a well-known launch point for migrant boats - for $1,000 and lists a WhatsApp number as a contact.
There is no mention of NGOs specifically and posts refer to “battleships”, possibly a reference to navy vessels.
Additionally, speaking aboard Aquarius in August, 28-year-old Sa’id from Sudan, told us: “I was told in six or seven hours we would arrive in international waters and then we would seek rescue by the Italian army [navy].
“They did not talk about NGOs. They gave us a [satellite phone] phone and said to us after four hours you try and call the rescue and give a sign.”
Of the other five migrants from Sa’id’s group that HuffPost spoke to, only one mentioned an NGO (the Red Cross), while the others only spoke in general terms of “boats”.
Complicating matters further is the people-smugglers’ apparent fluidity in their role which can change depending on the political situation in Libya which, after the fall and death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 is complicated to say the least.
Currently there are two parliaments and three governments in Libya as well as various militias all in charge of different areas of the country. A number of them have been or are involved in people-smuggling.
But whilst clearly motivated by the money available in the hugely lucrative trade in people, if an alternate source of income arises they are not above changing their operations to suit.
Currently the two main smuggling gangs are reportedly working with the Libyan and Italian governments to actually reduce the flow of migrants and set up an alternative stream of income, meaning that for now they don’t really care who is aboard Aquarius.
The crew are a political headache
The evidence is serious. We have evidence of encounters between traffickers, who escorted illegal immigrants to the Luventa, and members of the boat’s crew. Ambrogio Cartosio, chief prosecutor in the western Sicilian city of Trapani
Italians will take to the polls next May and those in power, as well as those seeking it, realise the migrant crisis of which Italy is currently bearing the brunt, could impact voting intentions.
“The migration crisis is putting a lot of pressure on domestic constituencies so it’s a very politicised issue,” Dr Persi Paoli, Research Leader on Defence, Security and Infrastructure at think tank Rand Europe, told HuffPost.
At the beginning of August a joint naval mission was announced to curb the flow of migrants that saw the Italian Government provide logistical, technical and operational support to the Libyan Navy and Coastguard which already use Italian-supplied boats.
At the same time Aquarius and other ships like it have come under increasing scrutiny culminating in the seizure of a ship belonging to Jugend Rettet in early August, which prompted the above quote.
Italy’s government has sought to regulate the activities of NGOs by forcing them to sign up to a controversial new Code of Conduct. This, combined with volatile actions by the Libyan Coastguard (see below) have led to a number of NGOs suspending rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
“With the Italian elections coming closer, we can feel a clear change in the political climate with increasing polemics against the life-saving work carried out by NGOs in the Central Mediterranean,” Jana Ciernioch, spokesperson for SOS Mediterranée, tells HuffPost UK.
The crew are enablers
You are causing a big problem. You are acting like an assistance (sic) to smugglers. You are acting like a transporter. Libyan Coast Guard to the Golfo Azzuro
The above quote was recorded on 15 August and is one of many confrontations between NGO ships and the Libyan Coastguard in recent weeks.
Another far more serious incident a few days before saw the crew of a Proactiva Open Arms vessel fired upon.
The sentiment displayed is clear - the crews of ships such as the Aquarius are encouraging people-smugglers and are not welcome anywhere near Libyan waters.
But ascertaining exactly who the Coast Guard is and what their motives are at any given time is difficult in a country that has two rival parliaments, three governments multiple armed militias all vying for power.
In the eyes of the international community at least, the Presidency Council, headed by unity Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, is in charge but things aren’t that straightforward.
On the face of it, the naval mission between the Italian Navy and the Libyan Coastguard appears to be working as the numbers of people making the journey and those dying at sea has dropped dramatically.
But it appears to be in large part due to deals struck with the two most powerful militias in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, the biggest launching point.
The militias, one known as “Al-Ammu” and the other as Brigade 48, are headed by two brothers from the area’s large al-Dabashi family.
At least five security officials and activists based in Sabratha said the militiamen were known to be behind smuggling of migrants. One called the brothers the “kings of trafficking” in Sabratha.
A security official speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press: “Yesterday’s traffickers are today’s anti-trafficking force.
“When the honeymoon is over between them and the Italians, we will be facing a more dangerous situation.”
Earlier this month HuffPost also revealed evidence of collusion between the Libyan Coast Guard and people-smugglers.
The crew are a threat to Europe’s very existence
These ships are not acting like rescue ships, they are acting like ferries, like a taxi service. Simon Wald, Defend Europe
To the far-right Identitarians currently on a mission to “save” the “European identity” (a concept they struggle to actually define), Aquarius is the cause of the migrant crisis and stopping its rescue missions is the solution.
“I don’t think the NGOs are on the phone to the traffickers but it’s not necessary to communicate, the human traffickers expect the NGOs to be waiting there and the NGOs want to bring as many migrants as they can from Libya,” Simon Wald, spokesperson for Defend Europe, told HuffPost.
“The left-wing NGOs and left-wing activists are acting on their ideology, they have the ideology of open borders and open migration. They believe that millions of migrants may come to Europe but the left-wing thinking in this case completely ignores that if you bring the whole of Africa to Europe, you will not save the African people but you will make Europe another African failed state.”
Instead Wald states “cowardly” migrants should instead stay in their countries of origin to rebuild their homes, not taking into account the push factors that prompt people to make the journey in the first place.
It should also be noted that the Libyan Coastguard expelled Defend Europe’s ship at the same time it ordered the Golfo Azzuro to leave, a point they left out of their videos.
The crew are transporters of terrorism
That’s why it is so important that we work with the Libyan government and our partners to help bring stability to Libya, stopping it from becoming a fertile ground for terrorists, gun runners and people traffickers in close proximity to Europe. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson
In the migrant crisis proximity matters.
Those countries close to it bear the brunt whilst those further away are less inclined to get involved.
This has resulted in a sluggish and flawed approach from EU countries collectively and has led to repeated appeals from the Italian Government for other countries to take more responsibility.
The UK, as one of only six countries to hit the 0.7% UN foreign aid spending target, does a lot of good in the world and earlier this year pledged £75 million to help support migrants who want to return home, as well as providing supplies for those in camps in southern Europe.
But Boris Johnson’s first trip to Libya as Foreign Secretary reframed the issue slightly when he pledged a further £9 million for “the front line for many challenges which, left unchecked, can pose problems for us in the UK – particularly illegal migration and the threat from terrorism”.
Some NGOs called the move “disturbing” and would result in “trapping [migrants] in a country where they face violence and abuse”.
PEOPLE IN THE SEA
The crew are saviours
We all suffered so much. All the people you see here have come a very long way. They have died inside for a long time. Even their families must believe they are dead. Today is like resurrection.
This quote is the second half of a statement from a 20-year-old Cameroonian who spent six months in detention in Libya, rescued by Aquarius in August.
The first half reads:
“The Libyans beat us all the time, without any reason. They put us in jail without any reason. The guards of the prison, they kill people, and they throw them into a hole. They do not close the hole until it is full of bodies.”
Much is made about whether or not those that make the journey across the Mediterranean are economic migrants in search of a better life in Europe or genuine refugees fleeing war, persecution or worse.
At the point where they reach Libya and are either imprisoned, sold, prostituted, or made to pay for a boat ride to Europe (in many cases Italy was their intended destination), their migration status ceases to apply - they just want to be saved.
During our time aboard the Aquarius, HuffPost UK heard a range of extraordinary stories from the people who had just been plucked to safety.
“Libyan people hit us for no reason. When you ask for a little water, they punish you.
″(Islamic State) asked about my nationality and my religion and told me to read from the holy Quran, I read it and they let me go.” Said, kidnapped by Islamic State whilst travelling through Libya.
“I want to tell my story because I want people to know what is happening in Libya. If I could say anything it would be to tell people not to come to Libya. Once you enter Libya you can never get out.
“You can’t go home. You either get on the boat or you die.” - Michael, 17, from Ghana
“You can’t go out [of prison] even to get food. They take you and sell you. They sell you like a chicken.” Anon, 20, from Ghana.
“They call us ‘slave’. They beat us with the back of their guns or a wooden stick”. In my presence they killed 19 people. 15 were from Nigeria. When they kidnap you they tell you to call your family for money. If you don’t get money from your family they [imprison] you for four months. They shoot your leg first.
“Then they kill you if you don’t pay.” - Joseph, 34, from Nigeria