Far from land, without Twitter (or even a cellphone in most cases), the migrants on board the Aquarius have no idea that they are at the center a heated debate across Europe. Nor that they are the protagonists of a drama that has the power to determine the future of migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
Disconnected from the world, they don’t know that Spain’s new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has offered them a safe harbor. Their faces were racked with worry and exhaustion as they watched a military ship arrive on Monday afternoon with supplies: noodles, biscuits and bottles of water to feed and quench the thirst of the 629 people on board for at least a day.
They are fragile and vulnerable people who have spent 48 hours at sea. The situation is beginning to get critical
MSF coordinator Aloys Vimard
Thirty-year-old Olajumoke Adeniran Ajayi prepares to spend her second night on the ship with her husband and two children. The children, Donald and Progress, both born in Libya, will sleep with their mother under a roof, their father on deck. “I’m happy because the journey up to now has not been easy,” says Ajayi on the morning when she thinks they will soon reach Italy. The 10-hour ordeal from Libya with her baby tucked on her chest in a backpack was terrifying. “I was very scared because I had never seen so much water. Never.” By the afternoon, she was the image of resignation. “What am I going to do? I am in the middle of the sea. I can only hope that this gets better. How long will this last?” Receiving no answer, she asks: “Could this go on for a month?”
The rescue ship, which has been run by the SOS Mediterranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for two years, has just spent its first 24 hours on stand-by in international waters. Two days earlier, it had made two rescues in nine hours and received hundreds more migrants who had been rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. But whatever optimism there had been evaporated the moment the NGO officials told them they wouldn’t be able to dock in Italy as planned. “This could go on for two or three days,” warned Ramzi ben Nasr, a Tunisian official from MSF, who tried to give assurances without raising hopes.
At his side, Selin Cakar, a Turkish expert in humanitarian cases, explained with a huge map the exact position of the ship. “We are here, very far from Libya. This is Malta and this is Italy,” she explained, while pointing at the map. Updates were shared in Arabic, English and France. Only one of the migrants raised their voice, threatening to throw themselves overboard given they were so close to Italy. A veteran MSF nurse calmed him down while the rest of the migrants tried to keep the peace.
Seven pregnant women and 123 unaccompanied minors are among the rescued
As the sun went down on Monday, there are no hymns or joy like the previous night but instead uncertainty. The captain and those in charge of the two NGOs continue to wait for instructions from Rome’s Center of Maritime Coordination. According to regulations, the center should let the captain know which port the ship can dock at.
This rescue, like all others, must follow exhaustive regulations, a chain of command and communication. “We have not received any official communication from Italy’s or Spain’s maritime coordination centers that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has offered Valencia as a safe port,” explained one of the MSF spokespeople on board.
Rescue coordinator Nicola Stalla, who was a sailor before joining Aquarius, says this is the first time in her career that the ship has not been offered a port. “We are constantly telling the Coast Guard about the situation on board, which obviously is at risk of deteriorating. People’s health is in danger because they are exposed to sun and heat and require rapid response.”
All the ship’s decks are overflowing with people. As the 629 rescued – including seven pregnant women and 123 unaccompanied minors – have become the center of a debate on how to manage the intermediate and long-term flow of migrant to Europe, life on the boat continues.
Children – there are more than a dozen and a number of babies – run around oblivious to the concerns of the adults, the sick line up to see a doctor or one of the nurses, the midwife looks after the mothers and the infants, a teenager faints, a rescuer cleans a toilet, and everyone looks for space to fall asleep.
People’s health is in danger because they are exposed to sun and heat
Rescue coordinator Nicola Stalla
The Aquarius, which sails under the flag of Gibraltar and is 77 meters long, is prepared to hold tight for a few days until it can dock or until at least 550 migrants are transferred to another ship. It is not prepared for an indefinite stay with more than 600 people on board. The ship is where it was on Sunday night: 35 nautical miles from Italy, 27 nautical miles from Malta. This Monday, the migrants asked why the boat wasn’t moving. “They began to worry, they are fragile and vulnerable people who have spent 48 hours at sea. The situation is beginning to get critical,” Aloys Vimard, an MSF coordinator on board explained.
A third of the migrants were rescued by the Aquarius team from two small boats, one of which fell apart, sending 40 people into the sea. The remaining 400 were found and picked up by merchant ships or the Italian Coast Guard and moved to the Aquarius so they could be brought to land. But Italy has a new government and has closed its ports to the ship.
“Do you have a charger?” asked one of the migrants. When told no and that there is no phone coverage, he replied: “I need to charge it because we are close.” Close but not close enough. The 629 people who have fled poverty, persecution and war continue looking for a port. They’re not asking to be welcomed – to be accepted would be enough.
English version by Melissa Kitson.