The bad news from the Mediterranean – and the Aegean in particular – continues. “12 Dead, More Missing After Boat Capsizes”; “Migrant Boat Sinks: Nine Children Among Dead”... Over a million people crossed the Mediterranean ‘irregularly’ in 2015: thousands died attempting it. This year, to 29 January, the International Organization for Migration reports that 52,055 have crossed to Greece and 3,473 to Italy: at least 244 more have died.
We can become inured to bad news. It batters us relentlessly; and perhaps there is a weary feeling of ‘That’s terribly sad – but what can I do...?’ Then something happens to make it all immediate again.
An email arrived in the IMRF’s UK office: “This morning our boats were called out very urgently just after 0600. The report was of people in the water 5-6 nm NW of Vahti harbour. Arriving on scene the area was full of debris: life-vests and wooden and plastic boat parts. In the debris the boats picked up three boys aged 9 or 10. They had drowned. The Hellenic Coast Guard managed to pick up some survivors minutes earlier. How many are lost one can only imagine. It was yet another catastrophe while we were sleeping safe. The night was beautiful: calm, clear and the moon bright; all almost poetically beautiful – and then this horrible accident.”
And later: “16 dead and only 9 survivors so far. Still searching...” After a search lasting 12 hours another 10 bodies had been found.
“Rescue services and the people on the islands in the area are exhausted,” says IMRF CEO Bruce Reid. “They need help – which is being provided in the form of additional people and equipment, and support with coordinating the many willing responders. Short-term our Members and other NGOs are helping out operationally. However the IMRF has also developed a plan to help build SAR capability in Greece. We welcome Andreas Arvidsson of the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS) to the IMRF team to manage our Mixed Migrant Safety Project. It’s a big job and one Andreas is well equipped to make a success.”
It was Andreas who sent the email. “Today affected me very deeply,” he wrote. “I share this with you to once again underline the importance of our efforts made in this area.”
For let us be clear: there is good news too, across the Mediterranean: “Swedish volunteers rescue 1000 refugees”; “More than 1,200 boat migrants rescued off Libya on Tuesday”; “Romanian border police rescue 119 migrants in the Mediterranean”.
There is good news from IMRF Members the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), for example, now active in the Aegean, having saved more than 12,000 lives in the Central Mediterranean since 2014. In 2015 an outpouring of public support allowed MOAS to become a global NGO providing SAR services where they are needed most. The area of current operation was determined after discussions with the Greek authorities. But the work is very tough. “Nothing can prepare you for the horrific reality of what is going on,” says Christopher Catrambone, MOAS’s co-founder: see "Moas Rescue Shipwreched Syrians on Greek Island of Agathonisi".
As another example the SSRS have two rescue boats operational on the Greek island of Samos, in an initiative launched with media company Schibsted and funded by individuals and businesses. “For us, rescue has no boundaries, no one should have to die at sea. It was natural for us to help when we had the chance. It is fantastic to see that our effort has already saved many lives”, says Rolf Westerström, SSRS CEO.
But the work is very tough for everyone engaged. The world was horrified by the picture of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body being recovered from a beach by a Turkish policeman last autumn – but SAR people everywhere will have seen the look on the policeman’s face, and our hearts went out to him. For a feel of what SAR means in these circumstances, visit http://thecoastofthedead.story.aftonbladet.se/#1 – and do not fail to click on the video that begins with this picture.
The IMRF’s project in the Aegean is fully coordinated with the Hellenic Coast Guard, the SAR Authority most deeply concerned. There is also extensive collaboration with other aid agencies and organisations on scene: in particular, IMRF Members the Hellenic Rescue Team. “We will continue to collaborate closely with local organizations to exchange knowledge and experience for their future work,” says Andreas. Watch LIFE LINE for updates.
Bruce Reid adds: “IMRF’s thanks go out to our Members who have committed to these initiatives – SSRS, the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue (RS), the German Maritime SAR Service (DGzRS), the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution (KNRM), and Britain and Ireland’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – and to the individuals and organisations who are providing financial support. I am sure that through open dialogue, sharing and a coordinated approach we will make a difference, and more lives will be saved: not just now but for years to come.”