ABOARD VIKING: In the darkness, a shape emerged among the Mediterranean waves — around 30 men, huddled shoulder to shoulder in the hold of a fibreglass boat.

“We’re here to help you!” called out Giannis, a member of the search and rescue team of the Ocean Viking charity ship, on patrol in the waters between Malta and Italy. A few hours earlier, the crew had been pulled from their bunks at 4am by news of the boat in distress.

The crackly call to action — “SAR Team, Ready for Rescue!” — was relayed across walkie-talkies around the ship, a former supply vessel for oil rigs now run by SOS Mediterranee.

The team pulled on life-jackets, hats, gloves, boots and waterproof trousers, before launching a semi-rigid boat in the water. The beam of their flashlight cut through the darkness and swept across the foam of the waves before David, at the controls, shouted out that the boat had been spotted. As they pulled alongside the migrant boat, the Bangladeshi men on board grabbed the rescuers’ arms and life jackets.

Haggard and trembling, their clothes soaked, their feet bare and their eyes red, they threw themselves into the rescue boat. Ten minutes later they were back on Ocean Viking.

In shock

The 35 men said they had been sailing for three days, covering nearly 600 kilometres (375 miles) from Benghazi in northern Libya. They wanted to reach the Italian island of Sicily.

They are the latest among what SOS Mediterranee says are about 10,000 people rescued by the Ocean Viking in the Mediterranean since 2019. Onboard, nursing staff identified three men needing immediate attention. One unconscious young man was wrapped in a survival blanket.

Dawn began to break as the teams, also from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, distributed water, food and blankets. The men had a shower, were given black tracksuits and a food kit including water, dried fruit and two meals to heat up.

“The priority is to ensure that they feel good, that they know that they are safe onboard and we will not bring them back to Libya,” said Sara Mancinelli, IRFC operations manager.

“Often, they ask us: ‘Are you going to bring us back to Libya?’ They don’t immediately identify who we are, they are under shock.”

After being registered, the men are moved to a container on the deck of the ship where previous survivors have left their mark with messages in Arabic, Farsi or Bengali.

Sana, another IFRC crew member, told them how they would be dealt with. Only one of the Bangladeshis spoke enough English to translate for the others. Many soon fell asleep, as the Ocean Viking was told to head for Ortona, a port on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Under a new policy introduced by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right government, rescue ships must perform only one operation at a time and then go straight to a designated port.

The journey to Ortona will take more than two days. Then the men will be processed.

Bangladesh was this month designed by Rome as a “safe country”, meaning any claims to asylum they make may be difficult. But to have survived the sea passage is a major step.

According to the UN’s International Organisation of Migration, 622 migrants have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean since January, confirming the route as the most dangerous for migrants in the world.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

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