Monday March 20, 2017

A single rescue ship saved nearly 1,000 refugees from the Mediterranean this weekend — many of them children

Some 3,000 refugees were rescued over the weekend on the Mediterranean.

Some 3,000 refugees were rescued over the weekend on the Mediterranean. (SOS Mediterranee ITA/Twitter)

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The crew of the rescue ship Aquarius saved nearly 1,000 people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea over the weekend, but Dr. Conor Kenny can't stop thinking about the ones who "didn't make it."

"That's the real tragedy of this situation," the Doctors Without Borders medic told As It Happens host Carol Off from aboard the Aquarius on Monday. "It's a real mixture of emotions being able to rescue people, but also that feeling that you may have failed to rescue others."

The team rescued 946 people from nine boats overnight Saturday — one third of those pulled from the treacherous waters this weekend, alone.

"That rescue started at 10 o'clock in the evening and went on all night until maybe 11 o'clock in the morning, so you can imagine it was an incredibly busy night," Connor said. 

Among those onboard Connor's ship are 11 pregnant women and 248 children, the vast majority of whom are making the dangerous journey from Libya to Italy without any parents or guardians accompanying them.

He says the unaccompanied minors range in age from nine to 17 years old.

Video posted to Doctors Without Borders' Twitter feed shows the children dancing in jubilation aboard the Aquarius on Sunday.

"Many of them are so happy to have survived the journey up to that point that it's a sense of elation that they've been rescued," Connor said.

But that's not always the case.

"On other boats there's a real sense of desperation. They may have been in the water for an extended period of time. They might have had a particularly bad journey due to a number of factors, and they will come in exhausted and it often takes 24 hours of supportive therapy for them to become themselves, so bounce back," Connor said.

And pretty much everyone requires medical attention, whether for exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia, burns from the gasoline that fuels their journey on cheap rubber dinghies, wounds from exposed nails in the wood boats, or injuries from being packed like sardines into overcrowded vessels.

New accord with Libya

So far in 2017, 19,501 have crossed the Meditteranian, while 537 are dead or missing, according to the United Nations. This comes after 2016 was dubbed the deadliest year ever for  Mediterranean crossings, with 362,376 making the journey and 3,800 dying.

"This year, the figures are up significantly," Connor said. "So this is a trend that seems to be increasing, so obviously we need to be better prepared to manage this situation."

On the heels of that dramatic weekend at sea, Italy and its northern neighbours agreed Monday to work together with Libya to help implement a new accord to better patrol Libya's coasts and stop smugglers from setting off with their human cargo.

Interior ministers from a half-dozen countries agreed to form a formal contact group on migration.

Connor said those aboard the Aquarius fled war and poverty in their home countries — mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa — to reach Libya, where they found more violence.

"Pretty much every person who's come into the clinic today has been beaten at some stage whilst they've been in Libya, so either by the police or by armed groups or by their employers," Connor said.

"That's just the men. Many of the women that we've seen have been the victims of sexual - or gender-based violence as well whilst in Libya."

When the refugees dock in Italy Tuesday, they'll be processed by Italian authorities and have the opportunity to apply for asylum. It's impossible to say how many will be denied refugee status. 

Still, Connor says it's no wonder that so many risk their lives to cross even though thousands have died trying and there's no guarantee they'll get to stay.

"Their experiences there have been pretty horrific," he said. "So it's pretty understandable why they would want to leave Libya and make the journey across."

With files from Associated Press