Life On Board Aquarius

Von Ra Boe / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

Mediterranean Search & Rescue Vessel

Aquarius is one of three vessels currently being used as a rescue ship in the Mediterranean. Its fellow rescue vessels are Dignity 1 and Bourbon Argos. Until 2009 MS Aquarius was being used as a fishery protection vessel in the North Atlantic. It is a robust and seaworthy ship that offers wide spaces below deck, making it ideal for year-round operation as a rescue ship. With a length of 77m, width 11.8m, draught 5.7m and carrying a crew of 10 including nautical, technical, rescue and medical crew, it has a rescue capacity of 200 – 500 people. Just what is needed for SOS – Mediterranee who have been working in the Mediterranean since February 2016, rescuing more than 5,600 boat people.

What is SOS – Mediterranee?

It was founded in 2015 by an assembly of European Citizens with various professional backgrounds, maritime, humanitarian, judicial, medical etc. Faced with the many shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, they considered it their duty to organize rescue missions and to testify about the situation of refugees. This year they recruited Aquarius to help them in their work. They are a humanitarian association, politically and religiously independent and their principles are based on the respect for human beings and their dignity, without taking into consideration their nationality, origin, social belongings, religion, ethnicity or political position. Their objective is to build a network of boats and experienced crews in operations of sea rescue and to operate on the different maritime routes of the Mediterranean, right up to the Atlantic coast. The most dangerous route across the Mediterranean, and the area where Aquarius works, is between Sicily, Lampedusa and Libya – names you will have heard many times recently with their tragic news stories. Their mission is:

  • To save lives by maritime rescue and emergency medical care. 
  • To protect and assist, by connecting refugees with supporting networks for their medical and psychological needs.
  • To testify by informing public opinion on the situation of refugees, informing the refugees about the reality of getting to Europe and the dangers to which they will expose themselves and to raise overall awareness about the consequences of European migration and asylum policies.

They work in conjunction with MSF (Medecins sans Frontieres or Doctors without Borders).

They need 11.000 Euros a day to carry out this work.

What goes on onboard Aquarius?

The vessel’s captain, originator of the project and president of SOS Mediterranee, is Klaus Vogel, a German national from Berlin and a merchant sea captain and doctor of history. The ship is equipped with speedboats, life rafts and a first aid station and spends its time patrolling the area looking for boats in trouble and assisting refugees in distress.

So what would a typical day be like onboard the rescue vessel?

The vessel is just northeast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, just outside the county’s territorial limits. Suddenly an overcrowded, flimsy rubber dinghy is spotted, limping towards Italy. Aquarius launches her rigid inflatables equipped with life jackets. When the life jackets have been distributed the refugees are helped on board and every one of them is given a health check. It is important to assess how everyone is feeling, whether they are dehydrated or have a fever, even how they smell, because a combination of fuel and salt water can lead to nasty burns. If that is the case they are put straight under a shower and given clean clothes.

These refugees, (unlike those who crossed from Turkey to Greece who usually had a mobile phone, some money and a few belongings in a bag,) have nothing except the clothes on their backs. They have all been stripped of everything they possess in Libya. They have not even had enough food and water, so by the time they arrive on board Aquarius they are hungry, thirsty and desperate. Medical teams on board from MSF treat them for dehydration, fuel burns, hypothermia and skin diseases. These are the normal cases. Others need immediate emergency care, for example the woman who might have suffered irreversible brain damage or died if it had not been for the instant emergency treatment she received.

Most of the Africans taking this journey would be categorized by Europe as being economic migrants, because they originally left home with the intention of finding greater prosperity. Then they arrived in Libya and experienced the county’s lawlessness, false imprisonment and even slavery and are soon desperate to flee at any cost. Refugees have spoken about their forced illegal confinement, sexual assault, whippings, kidnappings, torture and being subjected to forced labour after which they have their salary confiscated at gunpoint. No wonder they will try anything to escape, even knowing the cost. Many refugees, lucky enough to have been saved from a watery grave by Aquarius and its crew, have sent messages back home, warning of the dangers and trying to put off their friends and families from putting their lives in such danger – but it seems that many of the warnings are going unheard or ignored. Such is the fear and desperation of these people.

On Aquarius some of the Muslims give thanks for their deliverance. Their rescue has guaranteed them passage to Italy, but they will be starting their new lives with next to nothing and arriving in a country that is reluctant to accept them. After several hours the Italian authorities decide that the refugees should be transferred to a coast guard vessel heading to shore. What they didn’t realise was that the weather had been about to change for the worse and if they hadn’t been picked up, the outcome and their future could have been much more tragic.The last task left for Aquarius is to puncture the flimsy rib and make it impossible for people smugglers to use it for another operation.

Some facts and figures

  • During one period of just 36 hours, around 1,300 people were rescued from boats adrift in the central Mediterranean by MSF search and rescue ships.
  • On 8th & 9th June MSF teams on board the 3 rescue ships were involved in a total of 11 rescue operations. More than one-third of those rescued were women and children and unaccompanied minors. These are the most vulnerable and their proportion is growing.
  • So far this year the number of refugees who have managed to get into Europe, many taking this perilous route, is around 250,000.
  • One in 100 of the people attempting the crossing has died.
  • To date, the number of deaths at sea is up by 50% on the same period last year.
  • This year almost 3,000 refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite the risk of drowning, the number of people prepared to take a chance on the sea is increasing and a mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean. But it is thanks to the rescue organizations and the vessels like Aquarius, Bourbon Argos & Dignity 1 that thousands of lives are being saved.

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