The ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Daniel Wall, said that when the refugees got on board his vessel, they felt safe and would approach the crew to point out members of smuggling gangs.
Lt Comdr Wall said those identified were then isolated from the rest of the refugees and pointed out to Italian authorities when the ship dropped them in ports.
He said the gangs would typically charge refugees upwards of €1,000 per head to board inflatable dinghies which were grossly overloaded, often leaking and low on fuel. Such refugees were mainly from mid- Africa.
Wooden barges, meanwhile, were often used to carry refugees from the Middle East. The typical charge was €2,000 per person, but some could get a cheaper fare if they agreed to be crammed into a hold.
On one occasion, a boarding party from the ship found 13 men and a teenage boy crushed to death in the hold of a barge.
“They had been put in absolutely deplorable conditions. Cattle would be treated better than that,” said Lieutenant Alan Flynn, who led the boarding parties. They were crushed to death, he said, by the sheer numbers the smugglers had crammed in.
Lt Comdr Wall added: “In the hold there wasn’t enough space to stand up. Other people were sitting on them and they suffocated.”
The crew also recovered the bodies of a further 25 refugees who drowned when their overloaded boat capsized.
“These [the people smugglers] are really bad people,” said Lt Comdr Wall. “They are taking advantage of the migrants and are robbing them all the time, putting them first in unfit holding areas and then into vessels which are deathtraps.”
The officers made their comments yesterday as the ship was welcomed home after its 12-week mission.
The crew went through a rollercoaster of emotions, as they had also assisted in the birth of a baby and helped resuscitate another infant who was feared drowned.
“The migrant situation is a huge crisis in the Mediterranean,”said Lt Comdr Wall. “We went out there to help. Our mission is about saving lives. If you can save one life that’s a beautiful thing but if you save thousands that’s something else.
Lt Comdr Wall commended his crew who, it was noted, had all volunteered for the mission.