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Mediterranean: Part 2 – “The actual rescue is only the start of the process”

15 Jan 2017

Shaun Cornelius works for Médecins Sans Frontières as a logistician. He has recently returned from his third placement, on the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Mediterranee in the Mediterranean. Shaun describes the process once people are on board the ship.

“The actual rescue is only the start of the process. The MV Aquarius stays in the rescue area for as long as possible before returning to port. On a trip we may complete several rescues plus take transfers from other ships, and then return with 400-500 people on board. Or sometimes we transfer our passengers to another ship so that we can stay in the area. On one occasion this year the MV Aquarius had over 700 people on board. With this number of people every bit of available deck space is packed. Even with 400 on board there is barely enough room for people to stretch out and sleep.  It takes a lot of work to look after and manage this number of people, and everyone available helps. When people come on board we give them a ration pack that lasts them to the next day. Food distribution is a major task, it can take three hours to prepare and distribute even just a cup of tea and bread roll. The Portaloo toilets need to be emptied and cleaned every few hours, water filters topped up, and rubbish collected. It is also really important to keep moving around talking to people, and checking for any that are ill or getting cold. 

"Food distribution is a major task, it can take three hours to prepare and distribute even just a cup of tea and bread roll."

Things get a lot harder if the sea is rough or it is raining. Once people start getting seasick it spreads quickly and we are busy handing out bags and trying to ensure vomit doesn’t end up on people or the deck. The medics give out seasickness pills or injections for the worst cases. If it is rough it becomes difficult and dangerous to move around on the decks and particularly the gangways. If it rains we have a major problem. The MV Aquarius was never intended to be a passenger ship and the decks are mostly exposed. Canopies and curtains have been installed on some of the deck areas, but if it is windy the rain and spray still drives in. We then have to squeeze as many people as possible into the areas that are sheltered, which means people can’t lie down and sleep anymore. We issue foil survival blankets or plastic ponchos to people who can’t get out of the rain. Through all this the medics keep working and running the clinic. Conditions such as hypothermia, dehydration and seasickness are common. Sometimes people have trauma injuries and partial drowning or seawater/gasoline inhalation. Some are malnourished and have infections or injuries from their time in Libya or their trip to Libya. 

The Médecins Sans Frontières cultural mediators work continuously, moving around and talking to people, gaining their trust and slowly unravelling their stories. The main focus is on identifying people who are at risk, including those who may have post-traumatic stress disorder, unaccompanied minors, women and children. When we arrive in port, our passengers start getting very excited, sometimes singing and dancing. For us, it is great to see them happy but tinged with sadness because we know that there are going to be many hardships once they are on shore, possibly for many years. This starts with a long day of slowly being disembarked from the ship and fed into the processing run by the authorities ashore. They stand in queues for hours, sometimes without food or water, finally being taken away in buses to unknown destinations.”