It was late afternoon when I first heard the mayday call relaying the position of a boat in distress. I was standing on the bridge of the Ocean Viking, one of the few remaining NGO rescue ships still patrolling the dangerous migrant crossing from Libya to Europe.
Having written about migration issues before – from hotspots like Lesbos, Calais and Malta, and even in Berlin, where I live – I thought I knew what to expect. But nothing could have prepared me for the tragedy to come.
International maritime law states that rescues are the responsibility of countries managing the Mediterranean’s Search and Rescue (SAR) zones. Yet since the beginning of 2021, 792 people have died attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean; more than twice the number recorded over the same period last year. Furthermore, a new European parliament report has condemned the EU border agency, Frontex, for failing to protect asylum seekers’ human rights.
On the night of 21 April, I would experience first-hand just how far the Libyan and Italian authorities were – at best – unable to fulfil their duty.
Outside, the wind was getting stronger and the waves higher. I had never been on a ship at high sea before, and considered following the example of some of the rescuers trying to rest ahead of what would undoubtedly be a difficult rescue – but was too afraid to miss out on sighting the vessel.
By dawn, after a night in which my stomach sank up and down in rhythm with the waves, we reached the last known position of the rubber boat and joined in the search for its 130 passengers. Three merchant vessels were already on the scene, and had spontaneously begun to help, together with aerial assistance from Frontex.
I thought I would be poised to film at this point, yet nothing can ready you for filming lifeless bodies. When we were close enough I pointed my camera out at sea, feeling awful for prying on dead people, but also focused on what I came to do: show what is happening in the Central Mediterranean. I had to breathe in and out a few times in order to calm down. In the viewer, I could see people’s faces, distorted by fear, terror and sadness. Due to the storm, the bodies had been scattered miles.
I didn’t dwell on the scene. I filmed so as to be able to bear witness. I filmed things I will never publish but that are visual proofs of the human tragedies that take place.
[See also: Podcast: Mediterranean migrant tragedy]
The entire day, the Ocean Viking asked for and awaited instructions from the Libyan coastguard, which repeatedly said it was sending out a boat to collect the bodies. Had the Ocean Viking collected them itself, this would have meant leaving the area to disembark the bodies in Libya, which according to the UN is still not a safe place for doing so. The harrowing decision was thus made to continue patrolling, so as to be able to rescue survivors.
That evening, we formally held a minute of silence for the lives lost, and informally held many more. Some of us cried, others hugged each other. I was impressed by the resilience of rescuers; unfortunately, they are very much used to such tragedies.
Such events happen on a daily basis in the Mediterranean Sea, only this time there were witnesses, and a journalist. The news of the shipwreck quickly spread all over the world. For three days, I wrote, talked and edited reports, trying to honour the work of the rescuers and the lives that had been lost.
Then, on 27 April, the Ocean Viking answered another distress call, this time regarding two rubber boats. The tension on board was palpable: everybody was hoping for a successful rescue.
As we approached one of the rubber boats in an inflatable rhib, it again felt inappropriate to be filming other people’s misery. Yet 236 people came aboard the Ocean Viking that day. Among them were 119 unaccompanied minors, and a 18-month-old baby, Yaya.
They were all silent, stunned, and very young. But finally I could begin what I hadn’t been able to do for the unfortunate 130 who perished on 21 April: listen to survivors’ testimonies and tell their stories.
Among them, Souleymane, a 17-year-old from Guinea, was adamant the European Union must know what happens in Libya: “If the EU thinks migrants are brought back to detention centres, this is not true. Those are jails. Us blacks, we are constantly belittled, traded like merchandise.”
Souleymane had been intercepted twice during previous attempts to cross to Europe, and was twice detained: “When in those jails, you’re not even allowed to talk. You get beaten up, you don’t even get enough food, and not enough water either.” His words match those of a dozen unaccompanied minors who also spoke to me. All told stories of being beaten and sold as slaves to unscrupulous Libyans who deployed them on construction sites.
When sharing the story of his plight, Ibrahima, 15, mentioned in passing that his leg was broken. I interrupted to check if I had understood that correctly. It broke when a Libyan assaulted him, back in February, he said, and he had been walking on it since. He was so used to the pain, he hadn’t even had it checked by the on-board doctor.
Seven women were among those rescued, including Kadi, a 22-year-old Malian. “When my mother died, I knew my family wouldn’t be able to pay for my studies any more. I also knew that in Europe, women who study are not looked down upon, so I decided to try. I just want to have a normal life.”
Kadi doesn’t know anyone in Europe and says she would settle for any country that would have her, as long as she can attend university. After the interview, she collapsed in tears of sadness and exhaustion. It was slowly sinking in that she was now on her own, facing an uncertain future.
The substance of the harrowing testimonies I heard was, sadly, nothing new. But what struck me at the time – and has continued to resonate – was the absence of the relevant authorities.
While sailing through the stormy night on that first rescue attempt, Luisa Albera – the search and rescue coordinator for SOS Méditerranée, the NGO that operates Ocean Viking – tried multiple times to obtain assistance from both Libyan and Italian officials.
Since the distress call occurred in the Libyan SAR zone, Tripoli would have been responsible. But communication was difficult with the Libyan authorities, with the coastguard barely speaking English and clearly unwilling to give out information, even in Arabic. And when asking the Italians if they could relay the mayday on to the Italian SAR zone, Albera was faced with indifference again. She also tried to reach out to the authorities for aerial assistance, this time to Frontex – to no avail.
Such experiences attest that torture, cruelty and inhumane treatment of human beings occurs in a systematic way not only in Libya, but also at Europe’s doors. And since I have been back on land, further evidence of human rights breaches in the Central Mediterranean has come to light. At the end of June, SeaWatch International reported shots being fired in the direction of a migrant boat and a Libyan coast guard vessel apparently trying to ram the smaller dinghy. A week later, on the Ocean Viking, an attempt to disembark 572 rescued people was frustrated for a week, despite the Solas international maritime convention protecting the right to disembark rescued persons at a place of safety as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, I have kept on sharing the story in the hope that, at some point, the fate of the thousands who die each year at sea will not be met by indifference by the same authorities whose responsibility it is to protect them.
Emmanuelle Chaze embarked on the Ocean Viking in April and May 2021. She is the author of a book about the refugee crisis, “From Berlin to Lesbos”.