1. Montse Sánchez – works for human rights organisation Caminando Fronteras on the border of Morocco and Spain
They never tell us that they are going to take the boats. We work with them in Morocco, helping them access health services and education. If they need any kind of papers or help, they call us. Most of them stay a long time in Morocco – some even for years – so we get to know them well.
We know they are waiting to cross into Spain but they never tell us when they’re going to do it – we could never support them taking such a big risk.
Authorities have increased their security systems along the coast, so migrants have started taking smaller boats to avoid being detected. The boats they are using now to get from Tangier to Tarifa, they are the boats children use to play on the beach. They are really just toys. As many as 11 people crowd on to the boats, risking high winds and strong currents to reach the Spanish mainland. It’s too many people. The boats are too small, too unstable.
When the migrants are in the boat and they realise the danger of what they are doing, they often call us. We call the authorities so that they can be rescued. Sometimes its not enough. Last summer we know that at least 30 people died. There was one weekend when lots of migrants attempted the journey and rescue services just couldn’t save all of them.
It’s not just a number for us. It’s real people, with names and faces, who are dying. Many people ask me why the migrants do it, why they take these toy boats across the rough waters. The migrants know it’s dangerous. They know that people die during the crossing. But they know the situation is even worse in their country, so they will try anything to reach Spain, to reach Europe and to find a better place to work and live.
We met the traffickers in Istanbul. We were staying in a cheap hotel: me, my wife and our 10-year-old son, and they came and got us from the hotel and took us to Izmir. It took us one and a half hours to get to the Turkish coast and at about 10pm we started out in the boat.
The boat was about 10 metres (33ft) long and 26 people got into it. Twenty-three of us were from Afghanistan, the rest from Syria. We were in the sea for about two hours before we reached Greek waters and saw lights off Samos island. Then the boat’s engine got very hot and it suddenly stopped. But the sea was very calm, there were no waves at all and the moon was very full.
Then a [Greek] coastguard boat appeared and approached our boat and the men on board started shouting: ‘Go back to Turkey.’ We said the boat had broken down, ‘We can’t go back, we’ve got babies on board, we need help.’ And at some point we took the babies and held them up high, above our heads, to show that there were children on board. But they didn’t listen. They had guns, they were shooting in the air. Then two of them got out of their boat and on to our boat and with a big rope they tied the vessels together and, at great speed, started pulling us in the direction of Turkey.
We were going so fast that the boat began bouncing this way and that, like a snake, across the water. Then the bow around which the rope was tied suddenly snapped and the boat started to take on water and we started to scream: ‘Help, help,’ the only words we knew in English.
I can still taste the water. There was so much of it. We began to panic, so much water was coming in and we all desperately tried, first with a bucket and then with our hands, to get rid of it. At some point, the coastguards cut the rope and started kicking the boat and it began to list, so much so that it flipped over.
The women and children were in the cabin [hold] and we went to try to get them but the boat had turned upside down. Most of those who died were in the hold. Those of us who fell in the sea tried to hang on to the coastguard vessel for dear life but they didn’t want us to. They were stomping on our hands with their shoes. They kicked me in the chest and I saw a woman being grabbed by her hair and thrown back in the sea.
Everything happened so quickly. There was no time to save our children. We had arrived in Europe. We were refugees. But in a flash I had lost my child and my wife.
Here on Lampedusa, for better or worse, we don’t really experience politics, in the sense that it’s our job simply to save lives at sea. We are little accustomed to debate politics or what governments are doing. It’s our job to go forward and we do it as best we can.
In recent months the situation in Lampedusa has changed because the reception centre is closed and it is no longer possible to bring migrants on to the island. However, the number of rescue operations has gone up. If we compare this period with the same period in previous years, the number of migrants who have tried to reach the Italian coasts has increased almost tenfold.
If I had to give a very approximate figure, we’re talking more than 10-20 sea operations a week. It’s entirely related to the weather. When it’s nice, we have operations at sea.
Here in Lampedusa the coastguard has eight patrol boats, six of which are ocean-going. As soon as we receive the alarm the first thing we do is get the crew ready so that the operation can start as quickly as possible. And we try to get information that is pertinent to the rescue: how many people there are, where they are, if there are critical health needs. It’s true that in 90% of cases there is a satellite phone on board with which they can ask for help but it’s not always the case. Very often there are sightings of the boat; very often a warning comes in from relatives.
After about 15-20 minutes the patrol boat is ready to go out to sea. How long it takes to get there depends, of course, on how far away the migrants are. We have operated at about 20 miles from Libya but also half a mile from the port of Lampedusa. The distances are very variable.
Once we arrive, the work is delicate and demanding. We have to consider that these boats are excessively loaded with migrants. There are many people in a small space. And all the other factors – women who are pregnant, for instance, the presence of children – add up to make it very delicate. Let’s consider also that in the majority of cases the boats are in precarious states of navigability. So it’s a case of intervening immediately to unload the boat so that it doesn’t overturn.
If during the operation we get an idea or elements that might help investigators to identify the smugglers we will collaborate with the police force.
The greatest satisfaction comes from fulfilling our institutional role which is, simply, to save lives at sea. You can’t put a price on that joy. It rewards all your efforts. But there is also heartbreak. In October [at the time of the worst-ever migrant boat disaster in the Mediterranean], at the time, I didn’t have much time to devote to my feelings, to the heartbreak, that it is normal to feel in such moments.
In order to move forward I said to myself: I have 155 lives to save and 366 bodies to return to their families. And that’s what we worked to do. We focused on work. Afterwards there was a bit of time to go back over those moments, from an emotional point of view. There was heartbreak and sorrow for all those people who didn’t make it. We have saved so many lives here: thousands and thousands. If only they had been lucky enough to have had a telephone on board or something else that could have raised the alarm in time, we would have been able to save more people.
On a clear day, we can see across to northern Morocco. But don’t let the short distance fool you – it may be about eight miles, but the strait of Gibraltar has strong winds, strong currents, dense fog at times and a lot of traffic.
Migrants often try to make the crossing at night. At that time they are incredibly vulnerable. They are not detectable by radar and they don’t have any kind of light, meaning a big boat could tip them over without even noticing.
We work together with the authorities in Morocco. So far this year we have carried out 36 rescues in the strait, totalling about 415 people. And that’s in winter.
Often it’s the migrants who call us from a mobile phone when they are on the boat. The first thing we have to do is determine exactly where they are. Usually, all we have to go on is a static-filled conversation over a mobile phone that doesn’t have great reception. The migrants are often incredibly nervous when they call us and the details they give us are often confusing.
Unlike other points along the Spanish coastline – where larger boats carrying up to 60 migrants arrive – it’s mostly inflatable dinghies. We’re talking about plastic boats of one to two metres – they’re not even boats. Usually there are between six and 10 people on board, including pregnant women and babies. These boats can tip over at any moment and the majority of the migrants don’t know how to swim. There’s no motor – usually the boats rely on two people to row. With the weight they’re carrying, it would be almost impossible for them to reach the Spanish coast on their own.
Once we find the boat, the rescue is the next challenge. We slowly bring our boat as close as we can to the dinghy to bring them on board. The moment of rescue can be very dangerous. If they get nervous or they all stand up at the same time, their boat could tip. The migrants are often so exhausted from their journey that they have to be hoisted on to our boat.
For most migrants, their first reaction after the rescue is huge relief and gratitude. And then a second wave of happiness kicks in when they realise that they have arrived in Europe.
But not all are so lucky. We share every alert that comes in with our counterparts in Morocco, who also deploy agents to find the boat. Doing so increases the migrants’ chances of survival, but it also means that many migrants end up back on the Moroccan shore after their arduous attempt to make it to Spain. Of the 415 people rescued this year, 306 ended up back in Morocco, many of whom will likely try again to cross into Spain.
When I started at Salvamento Marítimo 19 years ago, those attempting to cross were mostly north Africans. They would come in wooden, sturdy boats driven by a captain. When these captains started to be arrested, the modus operandi changed. These days the majority are sub-Saharan Africans in inflatable rafts. I try to focus on the good, positive parts of the job but in some cases, sadly, you do lose lives.
This isn’t a phenomenon that will end any time soon. Despite the economic crisis and all that we complain, we can’t even begin to understand the situations that these people are in and the risks they are willing to take to get out of it. For us, crossing the sea is a tremendous risk, but for them, trying to escape one world to get to another they consider paradise, it is a risk they are willing to take.
I’ve been in Lampedusa since 28 April and in that time I have taken part in six rescue operations. Monday [when a boat sank 50 metres from the coast of Libya] was the first time that there have been deaths during a rescue I’ve taken part in. In Catania there were 17 bodies; two of them were children. I did not have direct contact with the victims as the bodies were recovered by another coastguard boat alongside us. They recovered three bodies while the 14 others had been recovered by another ship. They were taken to the Grecale [Italian navy vessel] with the survivors.
It was my job to provide healthcare to those transferred on to our boat. As we were many miles away it it took us several hours to get there, but thankfully a merchant ship had been in the area so it had carried out the first rescue attempts. Obviously, though, they did not have a doctor on board.
As soon as we arrived we provided all the care we could. We were told there had been a baby rescued in fairly dramatic circumstances; we tried as much as we could to warm him up. Then we took his temperature and he was doing better. And later the mother, once she was feeling better, breastfed him. All the women and children were taken into the inside of the boat as it’s the most protected and warmest area and it’s better to manage situations there.
Apart from this case there were people with injuries; we treated as best we could those in discomfort. Then, after this shipwreck, we got word of another boat, so we went to help with that operation.
We left at about 11.30am and got back at 3.30am. We covered more than 100 miles and we got back in the dead of night.
Maybe it’s the adrenaline in the moment that pushes you to be stronger, to be able to cope with the situation, because you can find yourself faced with absolutely anything, from the person who just has a bit of nausea to the person who has lost consciousness, or someone who is pregnant and needs support.
I always try to be as alert as possible. And I make an effort for them because maybe they feel a bit more reassured if they can see someone who is calm and smiling. They are always terrified, scared to death; they have been travelling in wretched conditions.
The biggest thing [that helps me cope] is definitely working in a team, whether it’s with the nurse alongside me, the divers, for instance, or the coastguard. And during the transfer of the children and women you try to keep up an atmosphere that’s as warm as possible so as to make it less dramatic and less oppressive for them.
I’ve been here, in my small monastery, offering help to anyone who needs it for 32 years. In that time, I’ve watched the situation change 100%.
When I started in the 80s, there were just a few migrants arriving. By the year 2000, between 200 and 300 were arriving [by boat] a year. Now it’s back down to a small amount – I think many are jumping the fences at Ceuta and Melilla instead.
Most migrants arrive at my door with a piece of paper in their hand that says “Padre Patera” – a nickname a journalist gave to me years ago.
They arrive with nothing. They took a boat to get here, crossing the strait of Gibraltar with nothing except for the clothes on their backs. We give them food, medical attention and listen to them.
Local media often reports when a boat arrives. As soon as the news reports come out, local people show up at my door – they know that these migrants arrive with nothing – to ask me what the migrants need.
When I started, people would come straight to us after arriving at the coast. These days the process has changed; most of them come from the internment centre for migrants. If the centre can’t determine their country of origin in 60 days, they have to let them out. So when they get out, they come and find me.
Right now, we have two couples, two women and six children staying with us. The children are absolutely beautiful – the youngest one is four months old.
Many of the migrants we take in are women who are pregnant or have children. One night many years ago, I received a call from a Nigerian woman who had been staying with us. She kept repeating “baby”. I don’t speak a word of English – all I could say is “yes”. We went running to the house and the baby had already been born, right there in our house. We didn’t know anything about caring for a baby at that time, but you learn, right?
For most of the migrants, their goal isn’t to stay in Spain. Almost all of them have relatives or friends in other countries in Europe. So most of them stay with us until they get their papers sorted out. It’s a hugely difficult process that often takes years, but we try to help them. Right now we have a couple who have been waiting four years for their papers – they can’t work or do anything without those papers.
I’m not here to judge whether the governments of Europe are doing enough to help migrants. I’m just a friar who’s trying to help a little bit. Nothing more.
We recently built a new centre, so now we can accommodate 25 people. It’s ready to go. But the only thing missing is the government’s permission to open the centre. We’ve been waiting a long time – I would say at least a year. I’m sure one day they will sort it out. But if I could ask the government for just one thing, it would be that they give the papers to the people who are staying with us right now. It’s the most important thing.