At least seven people died and more than 30 others are missing off the coast of Lesbos, Greece, after the boat they were in capsized in stormy weather. The Greek coast guard and local fishermen were able to rescue more than 240 other people who were also on that boat, refugees and migrants trying to make their way across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
In just the last two days, nearly 1,000 people have been rescued along that route; more than 1,000 others have been rescued in the Mediterranean, trying to make their way by sea from Libya to Italy.
Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Sebastian Stein, emergency coordinator with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), who is on board one of the organization's search-and-rescue ships in the Mediterranean, looking for refugees and migrants making that treacherous crossing.
On migrants making the journey by sea
“Indeed, people are making treacherous crossings crossing the central Mediterranean on very unseaworthy boats. Rubber dinghies are prone to sinking in the continuously deteriorating weather we’re seeing now in the wintertime. People are taking incredible risks in crossing the Mediterranean and it is shocking to see how people are forced into taking such a journey because there is no safe and legal access to get into Europe to apply for asylum.”
On how they find the people they rescue
“It’s surprisingly organized, how the smugglers work. They equip the people they put on these boats with a cheap satellite phone, and give them the number of the rescue coordination center in Rome, Italy. These folks leave in the middle of the night, in darkness. A few hours before sunrise, people call in and report their GPS coordinates. We will be called up by the rescue coordination center and told to go to these coordinates and start searching for boats.”
On worries that rescue services only fuel smuggler efforts
“I think there are two important things to remember about that. First, even before there was a big rescue operation a couple years ago, people were crossing. So this pull factor the rescue operation is creating, yeah you can rationalize around it, but it’s just not true. Secondly, even if it was true, what does that mean, should we just stop doing rescues and let people drown at sea? I mean, we cannot - that could say, yeah we have to have a few thousand casualties at sea and then people will learn - that’s just not the reality. People are fleeing from terror and war in their countries, from Eritrea with an oppressive regime or from northern Nigeria where they are being terrorized by groups like Boko Haram. And people will continue to feel and as long as people need to flee they will try to find a way, and as long as there is a business model to take people across the Mediterranean there will be smugglers who do it, so we have to rescue people at sea.”
What happens when you first pull up alongside a boat?
“One of the key moments during the actual rescue is the first point of contact. We’ve developed a model where we have a cultural mediator and an interpreter, and we go first out on our small boat, we go out to approach these people who are in their distressed boat and we start speaking to them. The first thing we are going to explain is that we are rescuing them and take them into safety. Because they are so scared we might be representing some kind of Libyan armed group or something and will take them back to Libya, so we have to diffuse the fear. Then we take good time to explain the whole process, that we need them to cooperate and be calm, and then come on in a controlled manor, and we spend quite some time doing this, just to diffuse the risk people will storm the boat.”
Describe wave of humanity you’re seeing.
“In a way this is the saddest thing about it, but also the most humbling thing. There’s all sorts of people coming, all kinds of stories, all kinds of backgrounds. People from all walks of life, we’ve had rich people who come with computers and bags full of money and we have filthy poor people. I think what strikes me the most, is that the sea is the big equalizer in this. On the sea, everyone is the same, there is no difference between anyone. You may drown just as easily if you come from a wealthy background as if you come from a poor background.”
How many people are on a ship at one time?
“It can vary, the small boats, still carry up to 140 people, so in a day we can rescue one of those or several, and up to one of the biggest wooden shipping boats which can take up to 700 people. The biggest rescue we did in one day was 1,001 individuals, and that moment the ship was completely overcrowded. It’s difficult to deal with but as long as we treat people with respect and set some well-grounded parameters it’s surprisingly easy given the scale of it.”
What is it like, the moment they’re being rescued?
“This is, for me, the most extraordinary moment of all. It's when people come on board, when they realize they’re no longer going to drown, you will see all sorts of emotions. You will see people laughing, crying, falling down of exhaustion, you’ll see people start praying, dancing... It’s a really humbling experience because you see the whole of the human emotional spectrum, it is really an extraordinary moment.”
This isn’t the end of the journey though, many still have to walk long distances.
“Yes, that’s for us one of the most difficult and contradictory moments. When we land in Italy and disembark the people, our new friends, it is with relief they have been rescued from drowning at sea but also with mixed emotions about what they have to go through in their uncertain future in Europe. They have fled from terror and war, from abuse, and they have spent fortunes doing that, often their life savings. And they have taken tremendous risks, and often the realities they face in Europe are much more challenging than what they were hoping for I think. But sometimes we have stories coming back to us that people have made it and they are on their way to safer environments, and that makes us very happy of course.”
This segment aired on October 29, 2015.