Horrific scenes unfolded in the Mediterranean off Libya as a full-to-capacity rescue ship was forced to sail away from desperate migrants trying to swim towards the rescuers. During a dramatic 24 hours, the crew of the Norwegian Siem Pilot and another aid boat rescued panicked migrants in the dark, with only limited resources and in the face of aggressive people smugglers. Around 2,400 migrants were rescued and 14 dead bodies pulled from the water on Saturday, according to the Italian coastguard.
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“I’ve never had a SAR (search and rescue) like this. We were in the process of transferring 1,000 migrants from the Okyroe (tanker) to the Siem Pilot when suddenly, in the dark, rubber boats appeared. It looked hopeless,” said Pal Erik Teigen, the police officer in charge of the rescue operation. Migrants aboard one of the rubber boats that had yet to be rescued desperately sought to reach the rescue ship, which by that point was full to capacity and unable to take on more passengers, motoring towards it while crying out for help.
Around 25 people threw themselves into the water to attempt to swim towards the Siem Pilot, forcing the captain to pull back to deter others on the dinghy from doing the same. Speed boats from the Siem Pilot later pulled the migrants from the sea and the dinghy and transferred them onto the tanker to wait rescue by another vessel, while the Medecins Sans Frontieres charity’s Dignity vessel picked up the dead.
Jan Erik Valen, an intelligence officer and crew member who provided security for the operation, part of the EU’s Frontex border force mission in the region, described the panic that greeted him as he boarded the overloaded tanker during the initial rescue.
“It was chaos on the tanker. They were pushing us towards the only way off the boat, coming from everywhere and pushing for lifejackets, arguing over them,” he said. “Then they came up from behind us and we had to call for back-up. Other police officers from the Siem Pilot joined us with riot shields… we were banging our sticks on pipes to make a lot of noise, and we had to hit a few of them.”
The Siem Pilot team faced not just the extreme danger of the sea rescues, but also had to contend with confrontational people traffickers.
“There was also a facilitator boat which was very aggressive all night. We used the ship’s search light to scare it off but it was determined to try and retrieve the dinghies we had rescued the migrants from,” said Teigen. Following the night-time operation, conditions on board the dinghies deteriorated as temperatures soared and the crew was forced to stop any more migrants boarding the ship. The migrants — mostly from sub-Saharan Africa along with a handful who said they were from Syria — had only a thin sheet of webbing to protect them from the baking sun.
Many of them used orange blankets to cover their bodies while their soaked clothes dried nearby. Among the migrants were several young teenagers and entire families. Up to 25 people are still missing, feared drowned after men on a Libyan coastguard speedboat attacked a packed migrant dinghy during a rescue operation on Friday off the north African state.