Doctor describes daring migrant rescue on Mediterranean Sea

"When they could see the lights ... they just started clapping.''

OTTAWA – They first laid eyes on Europe when the distant lights of Malta came into view, around sunset on Monday, brightening their mood and setting off a weary smattering of applause.

They were 369 men, women – eight of them pregnant – and children who had fled the forgotten carnage of war-torn Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. They’d made it all the way to the Libyan coast, where many had been jailed and robbed before human smugglers set them adrift into the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea along with thousands of others on the weekend.

They were the lucky ones compared with the 800 migrants who drowned last month when their boat capsized off Libya – hundreds of them locked down by smugglers – or the 400 who drowned a few days earlier.

On Sunday afternoon, the Eritrean group’s overloaded fishing boat was intercepted by a specially outfitted search-and-rescue vessel operated by the aid agency, Doctors Without Borders, which had set sail the previous day.

Crew members transferred the migrants over to the rescue vessel. And there they met Dr. Simon Bryant, of Canmore, Alta., one of the physicians on the boat.

He helped treat their dehydration, sea sickness, skin infections and the various injuries inflicted by severe beatings. Bryant and his 20 fellow crew members, medics and rescue professionals watched with misty eyes as the migrants’ much coveted continent came into view.

“When they could see the lights, and they realized these were not the lights of fishing vessels, but these were lights of solid land in Europe – passing Malta on our way to Sicily – they just started clapping.”

The Phoenix rescue vessel launched Saturday from Malta on a six-month mission to bring aid directly to the record number of fleeing migrants taking to the Mediterranean in what has sparked a major crisis for the European Union. It is jointly operated by the group Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS.

The Phoenix is a 40-metre ship with a fully equipped medical clinic, and a large drone “cam-copter” bearing an infrared camera that transmits images back to the doctors’ boat. The Phoenix project estimates it will come to the aid of thousands of fleeing migrants and it is already off to an auspicious start.

The Phoenix also helped rescue another 104 migrants on Monday from a long inflatable raft, helping transfer them to a passing oil tanker, because the Phoenix was already full to capacity with Eritrean passengers.

Bryant, 56, is an emergency room physician who has made several sea voyages in the Arctic and Antarctic.

He said he joined this mission because not enough is being done to help the thousands of desperate migrants currently making the dangerous voyage to Europe from North Africa.

“For me the bottom line is: migration is a reality based on untenable living conditions because of war, because of famine or inhuman economic situations,” he said.

“By the time they get to that point, all they want to do is live in a decent way, or die.”

Bryant said Europe needs to provide more search-and-rescue assets, and it needs to find a safe way to grant asylum seekers refugee status so they’re not compelled to make a life-and-death sea crossing in order to gain it.

“Europe is using the Mediterranean Sea as a border fence, and they’re failing to meet their obligations,” Bryant said bluntly, over a crackling Skype connection as the Phoenix made its way back to the Libyan coast after dropping off its Eritrean passengers in Sicily.

The Eritreans slept on the deck of the Phoenix overnight Sunday, bundled in warm blankets, after being fed, medically examined and, when necessary, treated. The vessel was met by Italian doctors in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, who immediately took over care of the most serious cases, while the remaining passengers were led off and processed.

Bryant said he was moved by the reaction of the Phoenix’s youngest passenger – a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler whose gender he won’t reveal because he feels bound by his oath of patient confidentiality – when the ship reached Sicily.

“What I remember about that person is a picture that one of my colleagues took – this little person giving a high-five when they left the ship,” he said. “That’s really quite moving to see.”

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