Watch: Exclusive – on board the Aquarius, “Everyone is safe”

They picked up the child and he shouted goodbye. He was one of the last rescuees to leave Boilers Wharf on Thursday 15th August. Everyone was finally safe; 141 people saved from drowning just off Libya in the international waters between Malta and Gozo in two separate rescue operations by MV Aquarius. The footage is a bit shaky, we waved them goodbye and he blew kisses at us.

Confined to the platform as members of the press ,we could not get a close-up view of the expressions on the people’s tired faces. However to my surprise we managed to wave off the last few. Everyone was gone, except the crew members from the three civil sea rescue organisations Mission Lifeline, Sea-Watch, and Sea-Eye who were closed off by barriers next to MV Lifeline just before the Aquarius could be seen coming in. That’s exactly the moment I was allowed to tag along, and after asking the crew members of the Aquarius, allowed on to the ship that had just brought in the 141 people rescued.

After signing in, Jana from SOS Mediterranee was kind enough to show me round the vessel and explain their work in a bit more detail. We went in to the room where the crew would hang out, met other crew members from SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF); they were smiling and tired after finally managing to give those they had saved hope.

We went out on the landing, where two people would normally be standing to help those rescued on to the ship. Once the life jackets are removed, they are directed accordingly. The women and children go to a room and kept separate from men. A sign on one of the doors in three languages says “For ladies only” in French, English and Arabic. The rule extends also to crew members unless it is an emergency. In the back room is a special clinic, for consultations, where women can also take a pregnancy test. The men are sent to triage where there is at least one nurse who will see to their general health and look for any visible injuries. Then, temporary shelters are set up to host the men.

After people are taken on board, Jana explained that the crew “registers” them. She explained that this means claimed nationalities, gender, age indicated to them and vulnerabilities, which Jana defined as single travelling women, pregnant women, and people with disabilities.

After the June standoff when Aquarius spent days at sea with over 600 people on board, the ship was finally allowed to dock in Valencia. The crew installed new showers in the eventuality that this had to happen again. Jana explained that the showers would allow those rescued to wash themselves and have some dignity.

We also spoke about these two rescue operations. Jana explained that people who were rescued off the first wooden boat told them once again how they were ignored by vessels passing by. They even tried to approach an oil platform; however, the people on the rig insulted the tired people on the boat. The second boat was found without an engine. According to the stories coming from the rescuees, their engine was stolen and they were left drifting after asking for help. Asked whether she thinks this was due to the possibility of being left stranded in the sea, Jana confirmed saying that yes this was a possibility and that it would mean loss of business to merchant vessels if they had to rescue people off wooden boats or dinghies. According to international law however, vessels are obliged to respond to a distress call.

Background

Aquarius is chartered by SOS Mediterranee and operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF). It usually has 30 crew members on board.

By the time this article was written, Aquarius had left Malta and gone back to the Search and Rescue zone.

In 2017 and up to June 2018, civil search and rescue ships were involved in 40 percent of sea rescue operations.

Three vessels belonging to three different non-governmental organisations remain blocked in Malta. Seefuchs and Sea Watch Vessel 3 were never given an official reason why they are being held in Malta.

According to the data from the International Organisation on Migration (IOM), in the month of June the Central Mediterranean route linking Italy to North Africa recorded the highest number of deaths in the past four years. Some 564 migrants were reported drowned or missing. Up to the 18th July 2018, an additional 153 people were reported as having been drowned.