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B.C. woman helps rescue more than 200 asylum seekers in Mediterranean Sea

Amber Sheasgreen, a veteran search and rescue worker from Prince Rupert, B.C., recently led a crew made up mostly of volunteers as they worked to save refugees attempting to make a journey to safety by boat in the central Mediterranean Sea.

Refugees granted safe port in Italy after perilous journey

Amber Sheasgreen, a volunteer with NGO Refugee Rescue, helped with a rescue operation in the central Mediterranean Sea in late 2021. (Amber Sheasgreen)

Amber Sheasgreen knows how to navigate rough water.

The Prince Rupert, B.C., woman is a veteran search and rescue worker. But a recent mission in the central Mediterranean Sea was one of her most intense.

"For people to choose to make that transit or to take that risk, I can't even imagine what their life must be like," said Sheasgreen, who worked with the NGO Refugee Rescue leading a crew made up mainly of volunteers in late 2021.

"It's got to be so brutal and so horrible to take that risk." 

People are leaving a number of countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo, hoping to reach Europe, she said. After facing war, abuse and persecution, some are so desperate they will pay smugglers to escape.

Aid organizations say refugees arriving in Europe through the central Mediterranean route hit record numbers in 2015. They also said, in that same year, European governments started to pull back the amount of assistance they offered to refugees fleeing by boat, which has made the journey more dangerous.

The refugees Sheasgreen was helping had only the clothes they were wearing, she said. Some didn't even have shoes. None had life-jackets.

Amber Sheasgreen, right, during a training session. (Sea Eye)

"Seeing it for the first time, I was just like, 'Oh my God.' A lot of emotions came flooding in," said Sheasgreen, 36.

Sheasgreen and her team approached four packed, unseaworthy vessels, urging calm, first giving every person a life-jacket.

"They're calling to you and they're begging for you to come and help them because they want to be off." 

Sheasgreen hoisted a woman whose body was dangling in the water into the rescue vessel. She also helped a man with a dislocated shoulder who was in serious pain.

Sheasgreen said rescues are physically and emotionally gruelling, but after two full days of non-stop effort, 223 people were safely on board the rescue vessel. Eight were children.

Volunteers from Refugee Rescue help migrants board a boat from a life-raft in the Mediterranean Sea. (Sea Eye)

NGOs, civilians respond to the call for help

Sheasgreen volunteered with Refugee Rescue. The NGO based in Ireland formed in 2015 to respond to the increasing number of people displaced by violence who were dying at sea.

"We're really trying to do what our governments are not and that is to respond with urgency, with professionalism and with empathy to people making these long and perilous journeys," said Caoimhe Butterly, a member of Refugee Rescue. 

Caoimhe Butterly, left, is a member of Refugee Rescue, an NGO based in Ireland that provides emergency assistance to migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. (Submitted by Caoimhe Butterly)

Butterly said the lack of a co-ordinated international humanitarian response to the migrant crisis is evident in the number of people who have perished at sea. The organization estimates more than 22,000 people have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

The boats are not sturdy enough for the central Mediterranean Sea, making the journey extremely dangerous, said Butterly.

People get onto the boat already in medical distress or a state of shock after enduring traumatic experiences, said Butterly, which makes an already difficult situation even more complex.

"Oftentimes people come on board, not really sure that they're safe until that's communicated very clearly to them, that they will not be returned to a place in which a lot of them endured torture and gender-based violence."

Vincent Cochetel, special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said "no one should have to risk their life on those dangerous journeys."

Vincent Cochetel is Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (Susan Hopper/UNHCR)

Cochetel said people need a reason to stay, which is why efforts must be made to ensure everyone has access to education, work and safety in their home countries. 

"We need to work to try to improve the living conditions of people." 

Cochetel also said refugees who fled by boat, as well as other members of their diasporas living around the world, need to warn others of the true risk.

"You have large communities of former refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and other African countries and it's important that those diaspora, those community groups, convey truthful, accurate information about the danger of those journeys."

In 2010, Saja Kharsa fled Syria to Turkey, where she paid a smuggler to get her and her four children to Greece.

Kharsa, who now resides in Finland, spoke to CBC Radio through a translator, her nephew, Ali Kharsa, who lives in Montreal. 

"She didn't want her son to actually join the army in Syria. She didn't want her kids to go through all that," said Kharsa. "She says she made the right decision to leave."

Saja said the boat was so packed that people could barely breathe. The engine died in the middle of the sea. It was a miracle they made it to land, she said.

Cochetel said refugees are like anyone else.

Saja Kharsa fled Syria in 2010, paying a smuggler to get her and her four children to Greece. (Submitted by Doja Kharsa)

"They adopt risk mitigation strategies and they think they're going to be lucky that they are choosing the safe smuggler, the safe road, and that nothing bad will happen to them."

The pull to help

Sheasgreen said she felt the pull to help refugees overseas after spending a decade volunteering with search and rescue teams in B.C.

She grew up on an isolated island a 10-minute boat ride from the coastal city of Prince Rupert in northern B.C. Taking daily boat trips into the city for school and work meant Sheasgreen became comfortable on the water at an early age. 

Volunteers from around the world assist with a rescue mission in the central Mediterranean. (Sea Eye)

But she also witnessed how volatile the ocean can be.

"When you live right on the water, you get to see storms," she said. "There were days where we either didn't go to school or to soccer or dance or anything like that, or maybe even my parents didn't go to work because it was too ugly."

In high school, two separate boating accidents killed a handful of her classmates, a memory that still resonates with her 25 years later.

She said it is these tragic stories, and a drive to give back to her community, that got her interested in volunteering.

"Even the most experienced people can get into trouble," she said.

Waiting for a safe port

Sheasgreen said they were lucky to get 223 people safely on board the ship, despite the difficult conditions, but the journey was far from over. The ship needed to be granted a port of safety.

The two closest countries were Libya and Tunisia, but under maritime laws, they are currently not deemed safe places to port. The next closest location was Italy, but it took days for officials to reply to the ship's request.

During the wait, some people needed medical attention. Italian officials were willing to co-operate to get the individuals the care they needed, said Sheasgreen. Four patients received medical evacuation, but a port of safety was still not granted.

WATCH: Dozens of migrants pack into small boats hoping to be rescued and taken to Europe:

Rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea

6 months ago
Duration 1:57
Dozens of migrants pack into small boats hoping to be rescued and taken to Europe.

Butterly said that's a common pattern.

"[European governments] try to make disembarkment as long or as stalled a process as possible," Sheasgreen said. 

The lack of political urgency to grant a safe port to asylum seekers deters cargo ships, fishermen or anyone at sea from rescuing migrants, she said. It also delays NGOs from disembarking and getting back on the water quickly to rescue more people.

During Sheasgreen's mission, anticipating a long wait, the started to strategize how to ration food, water and medication for an indeterminate amount of time. They also needed to make sure the asylum seekers remained calm. Tensions that arise at sea can be difficult to resolve.

"We don't want anybody jumping overboard. There's the possibility that there's some threats of potentially committing suicide if they don't get their way," said Sheasgreen.

The first steps towards a new life

After several days off the coast of Sicily, Italian officials eventually granted safe harbour so the refugees could depart the ship.

"As we said farewell, we had tears of joy; we had laughter. We had individuals that I think were still maybe traumatized and indifferent," said Sheasgreen. "It was definitely an emotional day."

Despite the excitement of that moment and the chance for people on board to start their new lives, there was still uncertainty. The process of being granted asylum is difficult and bureaucratic.

"We don't know what's going to happen next," said Sheasgreen.

"Even though this is the start of this brand new life, many of us didn't know ourselves whether we should cry or laugh. It was definitely an emotional day, but wishing everybody farewell and good wishes and a promise for a better future."

About the producer

Leisha Grebinski is host of CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning. Her more than 15-year career with the public broadcaster has included stops all over Western Canada. Leisha thinks the best journalism increases our empathy for one another. She believes that hearing and sharing countless stories over the years has made her a better person.

This doc was edited by Alison Cook and made through the Doc Mentorship program.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said that Amber Sheasgreen spent more than two decades volunteering with search and rescue teams in B.C. In fact, it was one decade.
    Apr 09, 2022 11:45 AM ET

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