Modern Times Review meets Morgan Lescot, communication coordinator for the organisation SOS Méditerranée on the Norwegian-flagged rescue ship Ocean Viking, often anchored in Siracusa on the Italian island of Sicily between missions in the Mediterranean.
The organisation was established in 2016 to help people in distress, protect them, and provide testimonies of what is happening in the Mediterranean and the situations that arise. There aren’t many organisations helping refugees—the tragedy keeps growing.
She has been working on this for the past five years. When asked about the ship’s mission, she responds: «Our task is to witness what the survivors have gone through, behind the fact that they have fled from Libya and why they have put themselves in such a desperate situation, mainly by sailing in unseaworthy rubber boats.»
Some have tried to escape from Libya multiple times. What about the Libyan coast guard? Ocean Viking experienced the Coast Guard blocking refugees in international waters. European countries pay the coast guard to keep refugees away. When Ocean Viking approached the boat with refugees in distress, it was threatened by the coast guard: «They fired shots in the air around us to prevent us from rescuing the refugees. So, they threatened a humanitarian organisation. We had to leave the area to avoid risking the crew’s safety on board. The situation was dangerous, and there was a lack of respect for international maritime law.»
Ocean Viking has also been denied refuelling in Malta: «Yes, but we usually don’t refuel there or in Libya, even though our normal areas are in Libyan or Maltese waters for search and rescue.»
Three rescue operations
I asked Lescot to tell me about a rescue operation that left an impression, and she shared the following story: «A stormy night from the spring of 2021 is burned into my memory. We saw a larger rubber boat sinking. We had been searching for it all night with Ocean Viking, so the rubber boat with around 120 people must have capsized while cutting through the waves in the strong wind. We arrived at the last reported position, 33°44N 13°37E, from their distress signal. We searched for survivors all morning, but they were all dead. Their escape ended there, in front of Europe, in the middle of the Mediterranean—another drama among many others. Around lunch, we found the punctured rubber wreck. Then we started seeing the dead people floating in life jackets. The Mediterranean has become a mass grave, and thousands of new souls end up there every year—in deafening silence.»
She continues with a more recent incident: «After receiving a new distress signal from two refugee boats, I was on deck to welcome the survivors—as they had been brought in from our fast, small rescue boats: I go there on autopilot: I smile, occasionally lift them, take off their life jackets, say some reassuring words. We saved 236 women, men, and children that day. One of them was a shocked woman who wouldn’t let go of my hand, who couldn’t believe her own eyes that she was alive. Or what about Yaya, a little three-year-old who ran around shouting on the deck—without thinking, he jumped into my arms. This kind of endurance impresses me—as life’s revenge over death.»
And this spring, Lescot says, when they were patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya, they spotted a rubber boat in distress. They notified the maritime authorities and requested authorisation for a rescue operation: «We received no response and saw that the boat was sinking, so we got started. Three fast rescue boats were launched, and we took on board 92 people, including nine women and 47 youths travelling alone. When we talked to them, we learned that many of them were victims of torture, rape, and various forms of violence in Libya.»
«One of them was a shocked woman who wouldn’t let go of my hand, who couldn’t believe her own eyes that she was alive.»
But who are the refugees, really? Lescot tells about one boat with people from Somalia, another from Egypt, and a third from Nigeria. They mostly come from North and West Africa, she says: «But also E#ritrea, Somalia, Syria, and people from Bangladesh.”
The escape routes have so far led them to Libya—although Tunis is taking over. In the Libyan internment camps, they only get one meal a day. The conditions are frightening, and people are tortured daily. At the same time, videos are sent to families pressuring them for money:
«For example, I spoke with a 17-year-old survivor from Guinea in West Africa who arrived in Libya at the age of 12. During these years, he was imprisoned three times—in a prison with widespread violence. He wanted to get away from this hell. This trip across the Mediterranean was his first.»
Italy, Norway, and Europe
Who else helps refugees in the Mediterranean? Lescot mentions assistance from Association Pilotes Volontaires, a French NGO, as well as flights from Sea Watch that help them locate boats in distress—especially when there are high waves and refugee boats quickly lose their course.
But another group that no longer helps is regular commercial shipping. While they used to have to ask the owners to change course to help, the ships today are directed further north in the Mediterranean to avoid the refugee areas where Ocean Viking, for example, operates—because it’s too costly.
I ask how many rescue ships come to the aid of refugees, and Lescot estimates that there are fewer than ten from various non-profit organisations. «When the survivors are landed, our responsibility in SOS Méditerranée ends. Then organisations like the Red Cross and others take over,» says Lescot.
But landing refugees can also be a problem, where rescue ships have to wait at sea for permission. Here in Sicily, Syracuse’s neighbouring city, Augusta, was a refugee reception centre. But this year, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni decided that refugees must be landed much further north on the mainland. This has limited the possibility of rescuing refugees, as several days of rescue work are lost each time, in addition to doubling diesel costs. I ask why rescue operations are ‘criminalised’ in Italy and Europe: «It has become political. We are trying to get the authorities to understand and respect maritime law, which says anyone in distress at sea should be rescued and quickly taken to a safe haven. It’s not a political issue. It’s about saving lives.»
But what is the connection to Norway, as they sail under the Norwegian flag with Ocean Viking? «Every time we contact the Italian emergency services, according to maritime rules, we always copy the message to the flag state, which is Norway. Beyond that, we have no connection to or financial help from Norway.»
A better life
I ask Lescot if they differentiate between refugees—do they distinguish between a political refugee, a refugee from a disaster area, or a poor economic refugee?
«There are many different refugees, including people fleeing from climate change, war, and violence. The severity of the situation is not interesting to us—they are fleeing, and everyone has the right to hope for a better life. What matters to us is to provide assistance to these people, no matter where they come from. It is the duty of every seafarer—that is, to respect the laws of the sea.»
«everyone has the right to hope for a better life.»
What about a possible huge increase in refugees due to climate change in the future? I ask: «This is something Europe’s politicians need to address—it’s not just up to some NGOs and civil society. The tragedies are too many.»
Finally, the conversation ends here at Ocean Viking in Siracusa, with her wanting to read a poem to me by Warsan Shire#: «No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well / […] / you have to understand, / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.»
With a bird’s eye view
MEDITERRANEAN: Modern Times Review presents a chapter from The Messenger from Hell.
By Kristina Quantano
«The AW149 helicopter takes off from Luqa Airport in Malta, turning slightly southwest and flying over the villages of Mqabba, Qrendi, and Zurrieq. As it hovers above the Blue Grotto, I feel like extending my hand out of the window, reaching for what lies beneath us. We are right outside the fishing village of Wied Iz-Zurrieq, where colourful luzzu boats in yellow, green, and blue transport tourists in and out of the caves where the movie Troy, starring Brad Pitt, was filmed in 2004. Carved into the front of each boat are two eyes, Asiri’s eyes, believed to protect sailors and fishermen. The boat we’re heading toward doesn’t have these protective eyes.
Below us, we can soon make out the flat, uninhabited limestone island of Filfla, the country’s southernmost point, 2.8 nautical miles off the main island. A map of Malta from 1798 shows a small fort, a lighthouse, and a monastery on Filfla, but after an earthquake in 1856, when parts of the island sank, it has been completely uninhabited. Today, the island is protected, and landing is only allowed for research purposes.
Seeing the Maltese archipelago from the air in this way is unusual. Even though I’ve seen the same approach hundreds of times, the view from a helicopter is completely different from that of an aeroplane.
Everything feels closer. The earmuffs dampen the deafening noise of the helicopter, but I know it’s there, and I can’t hear anything of what’s happening outside.
In front of me sit four Italian soldiers, all in their forties. A helicopter pilot, a co-pilot, a mechanic, and a winch operator. They have serious expressions as we speed toward the waters between Malta and Lampedusa. Every second counts. The two small islands of Malta and Lampedusa are so close that they often collaborate in rescuing refugees in distress, and during the days between October 13th and 20th, 2013, major shipwrecks and rescue operations occurred daily.
Thirty nautical miles southwest of the island, we see nothing but sea. The two pilots speak quietly to each other; position updates from MRCC Rome arrive regularly. The only thing we know for sure is that we are the nearest rescue service to the boat we are searching for. Sixty nautical miles south of Lampedusa, we are still in Maltese search and rescue waters. The winch operator is ready; he has done this many times before. The steel basket is attached to the right side of the door; he knows he has to lower it over the waves at a rapid pace while assessing whom he can save down there. He knows his arrival will cause more chaos, and he cannot save everyone. The basket can hold a maximum of four people at a time. The helicopter can only accommodate a total of 18 people, and I have taken up one space. We can save 13 people. Journalists are almost never allowed on these missions; they don’t waste a spot on that. We have no idea how many are down there, but the radio mentions hundreds. The helicopter is three meters wide, five meters tall, and 18 meters long, with a weight of 8,600 kilograms; it can stay in the air for four hours, and I check the time regularly. We are flying at 290 kilometres per hour, and twenty-three minutes in the air feels like an eternity when the mechanic points toward something in the distance and the helicopter makes a sharp turn.
The people below us literally appear out of nowhere. We slow down and descend further, and for a moment, it feels like we are standing still in the air. The four-person crew works quickly and systematically. Captain Roberto knows exactly how far down he can go before it becomes too dangerous, and winch operator Carlo knows precisely how fast he must lower himself if he hopes to save anyone struggling in the sea below. This is what they are trained for. Every day, for hours on end, they fly over the islands of the Mediterranean. Once a year, they are in a helicopter pool in Stockholm, training to crash into the sea, flip over, and exit the helicopter underwater. I’ve seen them train; I can’t imagine anything scarier in the world than being in this metal bird right now, except being in the frothing sea beneath it. The rotor’s thrust pushes the water aside, creating a white foamy depression that drags the people beneath us into the sea. I think we are causing more chaos than help, but we have no choice. The Armed Forces of Malta’s boat is hours away, and the giant fishing boat with people is lying on its side in the water. Through the screens in front of the captain, everything happening in the water looks green, but when I look out the window, it’s as if colourful buoys in the sea bob up and down, with arms wildly reaching for the sky before disappearing under the waves again. A woman with two children on her back is frantically struggling in the cold water while the helicopter’s wind sharpens the waves even more. Her face bobs up and down, then disappears. Large, terrified, white eyes dip into the waves with a mix of vitality and exhaustion. I desperately try to focus on a fixed point, but it’s as if everything is slipping away before coming back up for a few moments and then disappearing again. With earmuffs on, you can only feel the roar of the helicopter, but I can sense the sound of people screaming down there. I know that the sound of three hundred people drowning sounds exactly like the cries of seagulls.
I’ve been on many rescue missions; I know what terrified, wet, heavy people covered in oil, some in panic and some completely apathetic, look like. I know what a father’s eyes look like when he lets go of his little girl to keep hold of his son. I know what a mother’s screams sound like when she realizes there’s no one left. Yet, this is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Being in a helicopter feels overwhelmingly powerless. From a boat or a beach, you can do something: attempt to pull someone up, start life-saving resuscitation. You can only document from the air. I sit with an empty notepad in my lap, and from a bird’s-eye perspective, I watch people drown. I don’t have a single word in my vocabulary that can describe what I’m seeing. How will I ever manage to convey this?
After three hours at sea, we are on our way back with the eighteen people the crew managed to rescue, but we have left at least three hundred people in the cold waves beneath us. I can see the coast of Malta; we are so close yet infinitely far away. As we fly over Pretty Bay beach, I start to tremble. Below us, tourists lie on colourful beach towels, sipping a cold beer. A tourist boat lazily circles the island. It’s unfathomable that this is happening right outside our holiday paradises. The coast guard, which arrived an hour after us, found no survivors. There is nothing in the world quieter than the area around a boat that has just sunk. As if the sea is mocking us, see what I’ve hidden. The Mediterranean is 5,267 meters deep at its deepest point. The vast majority of those who drown are never found.»