© Kevin McElvaney
11 Jun 18 13 Jun 18

Search and Rescue: "Politics are being placed above the safety of vulnerable people"

On Monday 11 June, the Aquarius, a search rescue vessel operated by MSF and SOS Mediterranée, was left afloat in the Mediterranean Sea with 629 rescued people on board, seeking a safe port where vulnerable people could be disembarked. As leaders put politics above the well being and dignity of those resuced, Aloys Vimard, project coordinator for MSF onboard the Aquarius, describes the situation onboard. 

“We are currently in international waters in-between Malta and Sicily’s shores. There are 629 people onboard: among them 11 small children, 123 unaccompanied minors, more than 80 women and seven pregnant women. The boat is overcrowded and we are above capacity. We have very vulnerable people onboard and most of them are exhausted; they have been at sea now for more than 48 hours.

The medical situation is currently stable but some patients may deteriorate without advanced medical care. We have treated several critical cases, including patients who nearly drowned and others with burn injuries. All were successfully resuscitated. We are still monitoring them, but those who swallowed water could quickly develop lung complications. These people should be brought to a port of safety immediately.

We have five medics onboard including three nurses, one doctor and a midwife. We are fully equipped to treat everyone onboard and there are currently no critical patients requiring urgent medical evacuation. But people are crowded on an open deck and exposed to the elements. We are worried about heat stroke and dehydration.

We have enough food to last until this evening when our stocks will run out. A Maltese boat is on its way with supplies, but we don’t know what this will include. We are on standby and still waiting for instructions from the coastguard. We acknowledge there is communication between Malta and the Italian authorities, but we need further information.

Although people are calm, we can see that they are getting anxious because we have not moved for more than 12 hours now. They are asking us why we are not moving and what is happening.

We are being very transparent with everyone onboard. It is important that they understand what is happening. We have told them that we are a humanitarian organisation, that we will not return them to Libya under any circumstances, and that they will be brought to a port of safety.

The best-case scenario is that the Italian authorities will do their job and respect international maritime law. This means we will be assigned a port as soon as possible and all rescued people will be brought to a safe place. The worst-case scenario is that we will remain here at sea without any instruction, in an overcrowded boat with anxious people onboard.

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We are extremely concerned about how difficult it is becoming to perform lifesaving search and rescue at sea. We are humanitarian workers, here simply to save lives and to bring people to a place of safety. This is according to international maritime law and the duty of the rescue coordination centre.

European policies of deterrence have caused the number of people getting to Europe to drop significantly. But in the summer months, as soon as the weather improves, we will start to see more boats leaving Libyan shores. This is already happening – we rescued 600 people in only one night and we heard yesterday that there were several boats in distress in international waters.

It’s very worrying that once again politics are being placed above the safety of vulnerable people. Anybody in distress at sea should be rescued and treated in a dignified way. European policies are criminalising and stigmatising people seeking protection and rights which are afforded to them under international humanitarian law.

We have just updated everyone onboard again. One man threatened to jump overboard; he said he was scared that he would be sent back to Libya, and that he had lost confidence in us. People are becoming desperate.”

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