A migrant vessel after being picked up by MSF's Ocean Viking (Supplied)

Deadly voyages across the Mediterranean, and the New Zealander trying to save lives

Despite the world’s attention turning elsewhere, thousands of asylum seekers continue to die on perilous voyages across the Mediterranean. Alex Braae spoke to a New Zealander trying to save their lives.

A human body doesn’t take long to disappear in the Mediterranean. Salt water breaks it down, fish nibble it, and before anyone notices, it is gone. Very few ever wash up on shore.

That’s even the case when it’s a whole boat that goes under. They set out from Libya, in vessels that aren’t seaworthy, weighed down with far too many people trying to flee warlords and slavery. The glorified rafts that are meant to take asylum seekers and migrants to Europe can’t stand up to ocean swells, and break apart. When they sink, all too often nobody is around to come to the rescue. Generally when that happens, everyone on board drowns.

European authorities don’t care. In fact, government policy changes in countries like Italy make deaths more likely. Hardline anti-immigrant politicians have taken control, and have have started to refuse migrant vessels permission to dock. Those that do make it end up living harsh, sparse lives in camps, where the one saving grace is the dry land beneath their feet.

It is into these situations that New Zealander Shaun Cornelius has been venturing. An engineer by training, a few years ago he decided on a change of career. He joined Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and now spends half of each year rebuilding ships so they can act as search and rescue vessels, and then working on them as they sail the Mediterranean trying to save lives. The boat he has been on most recently – the Ocean Viking – has rescued almost as many people this year as the number who have drowned trying to make the crossing.

Cornelius has seen the inhumanity of Europe’s approach to refugees up close. He has been involved in standoffs with authorities, over whether their vessel can refuel, or disembark passengers. He has experienced harassment of aid organisations, with their vessels subjected to absurdly strict inspections while in port that result in heavy, punitive fines. They now even fine NGOs and seize their ships if they bring asylum seekers into ports.

Shaun Cornelius on board the Ocean Viking (Supplied)

But all of that is nothing compared to what he has seen on the asylum seeker vessels. The boats themselves are often cheap inflatable rafts, with pontoons on the side. There’s a small outboard motor to power them, and no roof covering or shade, increasing the risk of rapid dehydration.

“They pack them full of people. They’re probably designed for 40 to 50 people, and we’re seeing them with over 150 people in them. Usually they put the women and children inside the boat, sitting down on the floor, because that seems like the safest place. And all the men are sitting around the edge on the pontoons.”

He says the boats are designed to sail only for a couple of days, and any swell starts to break the plywood floor of the boat up. When that splinters, it punctures the floor of the boat, which doesn’t sink the boat because the pontoons keep it afloat. But it does allow water to start coming in, and filling up. People who have to sit in that water start losing skin, because of the corrosive sea water, and the constant movement rubbing on it. It gets worse.

“The other problem is, the women can’t go anywhere to pee. They have to pee in the water. And there are plastic jerry cans of oil, that sometimes spill when they’re to fill the boat up, so you get this mixture of seawater, urine, gasoline, if it’s rough they’ll be vomiting, and they’re sitting in this stew. By the time we pick them up, a lot of them have got really bad chemical burns.” Many also start the trips in poor health after months in camps in Libya.

But why must these people try to reach Europe at all? Can they not simply stay in Libya? One approach taken by European governments – funding the Libyan coastguard so they’ll turn boats back – aims to do just that.

The problem with this approach is that Libya is currently a living hell. For years, conflict has been sweeping back and forth across the country. Warnings from the United Nations from a few days ago predicted that Libya was “moving towards” a full-scale civil war, a fine distinction that would probably be indistinguishable for those who have been living there. Slave trading by criminal gangs, particularly targeting those coming through Libya from West African countries, is rife. To return an asylum seeker to Libya is to condemn them to a terrible fate, not to mention being against international law.

A protest in Sweden against Libyan slavery, after reports of widespread slave-trading emerged in 2017. It has continued unabated. (Getty Images)

The harshness of European countries towards Mediterranean migrants isn’t an approach they invented. In many ways it emulates the approach taken by Australia, where asylum seekers are locked up in offshore prisons, and the USA’s Mexican border, where a network of concentration camps has been developed over the past decade.

Cornelius believes that the situation will only get worse from here. European politics are becoming ever-more hardline towards asylum seekers and refugees, while on the other side of the ocean, climate change and political instability will drive more people to flee. “All compassion and empathy has disappeared out of the equation,” he says.

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People making the journey often don’t understand how difficult both the journey and the reception they get at the end of it will be. Sometimes they go to Libya in an attempt to find work, with no intention of carrying on to Europe, but then the horrors they find in Libya convince them there is no alternative. “The situations they’re coming from are really bad, so they’ve often got nothing to lose, says Cornelius.

Can New Zealand do anything to help? Cornelius points to our low quota for refugee resettlement being the starting point, despite the government raising it. “It’s a tiny number of people here when you consider countries like Lebanon have millions of refugees, or that there are thousands of people in camps in countries like Greece.”

Shaun Cornelius doesn’t know if he’ll be going back to the Mediterranean. He will if MSF needs him to, but as the organisation works on a global scale, he’ll go wherever they decide to deploy him next.

However, one thing is certain. Despite the best efforts of NGOs, there will be far more efforts to cross the sea than they will be able to cope with. And that means that more people desperate enough to make such a perilous voyage will drown.


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