Many of the refugees picked up by the crew of LÉ Róisín in the Mediterranean Sea were very malnourished and dehydrated. Some had travelled thousands of miles and spent their life savings to get on board craft that were deathtraps.
Stories of some of the harrowing scenes that were witnessed by the 57-strong crew of LÉ Róisín began to emerge yesterday as the ship returned to Naval Service headquarters in Haulbowline, Cork, after a 12-week humanitarian deployment.
The captain of the ship, Lt Commander Ultan Finegan, said the people-smugglers knew they were packing people into dinghies which weren’t sufficiently seaworthy to make the crossing to Europe.
“There is a great sense of pride that we have rescued a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have made it to land,” the officer said.
He said that the vast majority of the 1,263 refugees the crew had rescued were taken off dinghies, although people-smugglers also use wooden fishing boats which can be equally unseaworthy.
Corporal John Carroll, an army medic from Mullingar, who went on the mission, spoke about the condition of the refugees he’d treated.
“Many were suffering from severe heat exhaustion and malnutrition.
“There was also a lot of scabies. I’d estimate that one in every three women we took on board was pregnant,” said Corporal Carroll.
He said a lot of people were injured after being packed like sardines into the dinghies.
“These rafts might be fit to accommodate 50 people, but there could be up to 130 on them. As a result, the stronger stay at the sides and the women and children end up in the middle getting squashed. As a result we had to treat a lot of injuries, such as broken legs,” the medic said.
Unfortunately, the crew of LÉ Róisín recovered the bodies of three refugees who died while on the dinghies, probably because severe dehydration led to heart attacks.
Many refugees had come to Libya from as far away as Ivory Coast, Somalia, and Nigeria. It had taken some two months to reach the North African country.
It is believed that some were fleeing conflicts, as they had bullet and knife wounds which had healed.
Surprisingly, there were very few Syrian refugees picked up, despite an increase having been expected after Turkey stopped them crossing the Aegean Sea.
Despite the scenes witnessed by the crew, there were smiles all round yesterday as the ship tied up at the Haulbowline quays to be greeted by flag-waving, cheering family members.
Ex-petty officer Brian O’Flynn was there to greet his Able Seaman son Padraig, 24, who’d come back from his first overseas mission.
“It is a regret that in my time we didn’t have the chance to do what Padraig and his crewmates have done. I’d have paid to get out there to do this work. I’m extremely proud of him,” Brian said.
Lt David O’Flynn from Little Island cradled his eight-month-old son Daniel in his arms and commented how the child had put on weight while he was away.
The Defence Forces chief of staff, vice admiral Mark Mellett, said he was very proud of the crew and wished those onboard LÉ James Joyce “a successful and safe operation”.
LÉ James Joyce has taken over the humanitarian mission and was yesterday in Sicily taking onboard supplies and getting instructions from the Italian authorities.
To date, the Naval Service has rescued 9,855 refugees.