Our colleagues aboard the MSF Dignity were on the scene second to the LÉ Niamh, which was present and of course witnessed the whole catastrophe.
Its crew described a scene of disaster — with people in the water, lifejackets floating around, people clinging to anything they could to stay afloat and, of course, the grim reality of bodies in the water.
By the time we arrived on scene on the MY Phoenix, it was later in the day. There was seven or eight ‘assets’ —search and rescue boats, military boats from various EU countries, helicopters — all scouring the area for any survivors and bodies. That continued late into the night, by which stage hopes of recovering anyone or anything were slim to none.
The sad reality is that, despite the valid efforts of recovering and saving nearly 400 people, we will never know how many people were lost. In those boats you might have 200 people crammed under the deck. In the event of a capsize, a 1 sq m hatch would have been their only hope, and being crammed in, they would have had no chance.
We are facing more people being forcibly displaced from their homes and countries than any other time in our lifetime. A staggering 60m people are known to be displaced as a result of conflicts and violence going on around the world.
The sad fact is there are no safe and legal routes for people to try claim asylum. People are, therefore, willing to risk it all to get to Europe. The responsibility for this situation can’t always fall on the regional countries to shoulder the burden.
We are failing these people on all levels. We fail them by not offering protection when they flee their countries. We fail them in not allowing safe passage for them to get to the place where they can take and seek refuge.
So they take dangerous land and sea journeys. Rather than looking at ways to increase our capacity to host some of these people, in Europe we are turning our backs, building walls higher and making policies more oppressive.
The EU has been squabbling over numbers. It seems to have finally agreed on a number of 32,000 to be settled over two years — but these numbers are pitiful. About 250,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean alone.
We had a family from the besieged neighbourhood of Yarmouk in Damascus in Syria. They survived four years of brutal conflict, barrel bombs from the Assad regime. The brutality of Islamic jihadists finally made the situation so unbearable that they fled to neighbouring countries.
Those countries are so overwhelmed, they could no longer find a suitable hosting. So they were forced to continue to Libya. Then they had to risk their lives again to leave Libya and these were some of the people we plucked out the water.
There are stories like this every day. We ask these people why are you willing to risk everything? Why do you bring your baby? Why are you coming on this boat when eight and a half months pregnant? The answer is always the same: “We have no alternative. We’d rather die attempting than stay in our home countries and suffer what we’ve suffered so long.”
Will Turner, emergency co-ordinator for intervention in the Mediterranean with Medicins San Frontieres, was on the MY Phoenix during the rescue. He was speaking in conversation with Conall Ó Fátharta
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