I spent yesterday on board HMS Bulwark, the Royal Navy ship deployed as Britain’s emergency contribution to Mediterranean search and rescue missions. I learnt a lot – like why the other branch is not called the ‘Royal Army’, the difference between a union flag and Union Jack, and why I’m glad workplace hot bunking is not a phrase I’ve ever had to know.
But I also leant a lot about the kind of desperation that makes a woman in labour take her chances on the waves and what it’s like to be a six foot marine trying to reassure a terrified child attempting a Mediterranean crossing all alone.
HMS Bulwark was never meant to be doing any of this. She was on her way back from participation in Gallipoli commemorations when her orders came. One sailor described them simply as “go there and save lives”. A six week summer deployment became a three month humanitarian mission and in the end the crew saved nearly five thousand people.
Among that tally were a two week old baby and woman so heavily pregnant her waters had already broken when they got her aboard. They also described finding an average of 30 unaccompanied children in every group they rescued.
It is worth remembering that these children and pregnant women are not the visa over-stayers or illegal workers of tabloid nightmares. Instead they are people who have taken terrifying journeys in what the crew described as little more than “lilos with sides”. What kind of parent lets their child get in something like that? Only one who fears what’s behind more than what’s in front.
Many of those arriving in Italy are fleeing the deadly conflict in Syria, a humanitarian catastrophe whose refugee count topped four million yesterday. Others have experienced torture, trafficking and persecution.
That is why the original justification for ending search and rescue operations – that they served as a ‘pull factor’, encouraging people to make the journey who otherwise wouldn’t – was always wide of the mark and Stephen Bush was right to call search and rescue “the most important policy you’ve never heard of”. Letting children drown as a matter of public policy is the sort of decision politicians regret in the winter of their years and the leaders of all the major parties can be proud that they went into May’s election committed to restarting the rescue.
The scale and nature of the government’s continued commitment to search and rescue is, however, in some doubt this week. That’s why we at Save the Children were determined to show the nature of public support for what has been achieved so far. Yesterday’s Bulwark visit was to present the crew with thousands of messages expressing appreciation for their life-saving work.
Activists often oppose things by saying “not in my name” but my favourite of all the messages was this, from a couple in Iddesleigh, “how good it is to see and hear all you are doing to save innocent lives, and to give hope where there was very little. We feel proud you are doing this in our name and want to thank you for all you have done”.
Keep up the rescue? Yes in my name, and I hope yours too.
Kirsty McNeill is the Campaigns Director at Save the Children. She tweets at @kirstyjmcneill.