With hugs, dances and some tears, the 26 young people saved by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) when they were adrift in the central Mediterranean, in a small blue wooden boat with a broken engine, celebrated their rescue. After 10 hours sailing, they have received with relief the message from the mission’s human rights officer: “We are here to save you. Everything is going to be fine ”. It has been an operation against the clock in the presence of the Libyan Coast Guard, which has gone to the place when it has detected the maneuver and has threatened by radio the Geo Barents, the ship of the humanitarian organization that has been patrolling the rescue and rescue zone off the coast of Libya for 10 days.
The boat was found this Thursday 44 nautical miles off Sabratah, after a busy morning on the command bridge in which several notices from the NGO have arrived Alarm Phone of possible boats in distress and information from the NGO Volontaires piles of three interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard, near the position of the Geo Barents. Among those rescued, from Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Conakry, Senegal, Sudan and the Gambia, there are 15 unaccompanied minors. In the first conversations they have had with the crew, they have said that they left at four in the morning (local time) and that they had not called anyone during the crossing because they feared being intercepted. In fact, seeing the ship from a distance, they tried to avoid it because they feared it was Libyan, but one of the boys recognized the MSF logo for the organization’s work in Mali and they turned around.
Everything went very fast. As the MSF ship was about to change course slightly, a member of the team thought he saw something to starboard, and using the binoculars came confirmation: a small wooden boat full of people. Shortly afterwards, Antonin Richard, leader of one of the rescue speedboats, gave the radio warning to the rest of the crew: “All the MSF team ready for rescue”. The team of lifeguards rush to the changing room to change: waterproof pants, life jacket, helmet, goggles and gloves. Waiting for the green light, they meet on the landing of access to the sides of the ship from where the two speedboats are lowered. After 10 days at sea in which they have trained hard, there is a hug and they wish each other “luck” before starting the operation.
At the same time, on the command bridge, the head of the rescue team, Anabel Montes, and the head of the mission, Barbara Deck, have a tense conversation with the Libyan Coast Guard, which asks for information about the ship and threatens MSF. This situation creates tension among rescuers. The head of human rights, Julie Melichar, on the bow of one of the speedboats, makes the first contact to reassure the migrants. “We are Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization, we are here to help you. Everything is going to be fine ”, he says before starting the delivery of the life jackets to pass them, one by one, to the boats and take them to the ship. Also ask if there are children or a pregnant woman to notify the medical team if necessary. Not this time. The migrants, expectantly, follow orders, and once in the boats, some make the symbol of victory.
“Welcome”. “Welcome aboard”, greets you Philippe Juliani, head of logistics for the Geo Barents, while helping them remove their lifejackets. Almost all of the rescued speak French, so you can exchange a few words with them. “How’s it going?” “All good?”. The medical team awaits them on the deck where they will be staying, to take their temperature and give them a mask. Based on the first assessment, they all appear stable with no potential signs of covid-19. Some give off a strong fuel odor, possibly from engine leaks. In line they thank, celebrate, high-fives. One of them kneels down and cries. “Everything is going to be fine. You are safe now, ”repeats the crew. Although the boat was full, they were not wet, they were barefoot, but soon they received a change of clothes. Before, they are registered with their age and country of origin. Everyone receives a red bracelet with a number, and also a yellow one if they are minors or a yellow one with a black stripe if they are unaccompanied minors.
Once registered, the rescued receive a blue bag with clothes and food, which contains a white t-shirt, gray cotton pants, a hat, socks, a blanket, energy food, a cup, water, juice and a small toiletry bag. After a while, they continue to clap their hands and open the food. Some people take out their mobile and take a picture.
The head of the mission, Barbara Deck, delivers a welcoming address, which is translated into French by Julie Melichar and into Arabic by Salah Dasuki, the cultural mediator. It is a first contact in which they reiterate that they are safe, offer them medical and psychological care. The speech ends with applause and it is time to leave them alone for an hour so that they can assimilate everything that has happened to them in the course of a day.
During the night the surveillance rounds will begin to make sure that everyone is well and that if they need something, they always have a reference person to contact. Starting the next day, they will also have a schedule to get up, shower, get some exercise, and eat.
Ten days without bailouts
Once the mission was completed, Antonin Richard was happy to have been able to carry out the rescue and that the Geo Barents have fulfilled with your mission. “This is a search and rescue boat, we have been searching for 10 days, which is a lot, and I am happy to have been able to save these people.” However, he acknowledges that it is a bittersweet sensation. “It means that people are leaving Libya putting their lives at risk, but it is also good to be able to help people not drown in the Mediterranean and take them to a place where they can be safe.”
MSF has reported the rescue to the Libyan authorities, who have not responded, and has proceeded to do the same with those in Italy and Malta pending instructions to go to safe harbor. At the moment tonight the 26 migrants have passed it to shelter aboard the Geo Barents.