The roaring engine of the Sea-Watch’s speedboat was driving against the strong waves on a dark night of late October when Stefen took the small hand of a girl to help her board a supply ship that would take her to Italy. The German law student Stefen joined the Sea-Watch crew in his term break as a shipmechanic to help save lives in the Mediterranean. One of his most shocking moments at sea was the moment he realised the young girl and her brothers were without their parents.
More than rescues – keeping families together
Rescue operations are never easy. While women are screaming, children are crying, and the whole atmosphere is full of aggressiveness among those who are now fighting for rescue, for their families, for their lives, SAR crews have to keep a cool mind.
Controlling the situation and operating in the safest way possible demands a high professional standard. However, rescue operations also demand emotional strength to deal with desperate families, separated during their travel through the desert, or when smugglers assign them to different boats. Unfortunate situations may also happen during rescue operation at sea when more than one ship is involved.
In this case, it is of our duty to do all that is possible to reunite the families as soon as feasible. Once the rescued reach Europe, SAR organizations hardly have a chance to help since there is no way of providing necessary information after a person disembarks the rescue ship.
Sea-Watch has made an important point out of attempting to keep families together and is willing to improve internal procedures in order to make things easier for those who have lost sight of their loved ones during their journey. Therefore, our NGO is now planning specific training for crew members to increase their effectiveness in handling such fundamental issues.
Women migrating alone across the African continent
Imagine being a mother, and one day you have to tell your children: “I am sorry I cannot send you to school”. Abi’s decision to dare leaving with her four small kids might have started with this sentence. Knowing in advance that her children will struggle to find a job to earn some money to keep out of the poverty that Abi might have been fighting against all her life. Maybe it was not only that. Maybe they were living in a war-torn country where an imminent death could await them at every moment.
Leaving home particularly puts women at risk. During their journey, most women are raped, exploited, and many see themselves forced into prostitution. There is a lack of reports of the many other unfortunate situations of migrant women, but this blog article cannot do justice to this topic. Abi probably still has to live with the consequences of one of these mistreatments. It will take years, or maybe a lifetime, to process this experience and start talking about it. Her story is only one among many others, but it stands for the perilous circumstances of being a migrating mother.
In this article, another name has been used for confidentiality reasons.
Nine months pregnant and alone with four children
When Abi climbed onto a rubber boat in the end of October, she was already nine months pregnant. She was travelling with her sister and her four small children: three boys and one girl, who were all under the age of eight. The crew of the Iuventa, belonging to the German NGO Jugend Rettet, spotted Abi’s boat in the middle of the night. Abi’s physical condition was very poor. The nurse checked the mother’s and baby’s health and came to the heart-breaking conclusion that the unborn baby’s heart was not beating. This was a shock for everyone involved in this rescue, but there was no time to lose.
Abi’s life was in danger at this point. She needed a C-section as quickly as possible, but none of the ships in the area could carry out this operation. Since this is unfortunately not the first time that this occurs in the Mediterranean rescue scene, there is an existing procedure to start whenever a ship is incapable, or does not have the infrastructure to deliver a baby. Therefore, the captain quickly called a helicopter to transport Abi to the closest hospital that was ready to receive her, a Maltese hospital. Abi’s sister agreed to take responsibility for the children until she could see them again.
“Will the four children be disembarked in Italy alone?”
Hours later, in the dark evening, the other migrants onboard Iuventa were ready to be transferred to a supply ship that would disembark them to Italy a few days later, the Asso Venticinque. Due to the exhaustion of the crew, and the very bad weather conditions, the Sea-Watch crew assisted them in the transfer of people by speedboat to the supply ship.
It is at that very moment, that Stefen and the rest of the Sea-Watch crew realised that they were about to hand four lonely children to a ship that would transfer them to Italy, a country where they have never been, and they would have to start a new life alone. If Abi had been travelling without her sister, this could have been the fate of her children. They spent their first days in Europe with their aunt, some small comfort after being separated from their Mum, their only parent.
A crew member of the Iuventa visited Abi at the Maltese hospital and recalls how emotionally drained the mother was additionally to the physical pain she was still going through. Thankfully, the medical staff surrounding Abi was taking special care of her. “It was really touching to see all the nurses and doctors so preoccupied with her case”, the Iuventa volunteer remembers. After all the pain Abi had gone through, she at least felt well surrounded.
Where is my family ?
Later in the month, it appeared that Abi was still in the Maltese hospital, and had no news of her other four children. This case is not exceptional as it does happen sometimes that families and friends have made their journey all the way from Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, or Syria, and unfortunately, they get separated once they reach the final part of their journey to Europe.
Finding family members then becomes a real struggle for the migrants in question. Thankfully, it is alleviated by the International Committee of the Red Cross who puts all efforts to reunite families in strict confidentiality.
I wanted the world to know about this, so I collected all information that was available from the Iuventa and Sea-Watch2 crews and created a case for Abi and her children. After, I contacted all people and institutions that I thought could help reuniting the family again.
Unfortunately, the MRCC was unavailable to provide me any information, because of the understandable high workload. However, after contacting the hospital where the mother was, I managed to reach more persons who were in contact with the mother and aware of the situation. In collaboration with the Maltese Red Cross, handing them the necessary information that was in our hands, they managed to reassure us confirming that thanks to implication of all parties involved, the family has been happily reunited.
The whole process lasted around two months… Two months during which each day, the crews and I worried about these four children to which we said goodbye. Médecins sans Frontières (2016) recently published the latest numbers of migration across the Mediterranean: 13% of all migrants to reach Europe are women, 16% are minors. These children face the risk of losing sight of their family during the perilous journey every single day. What if they never meet again? What if a state requests an expensive DNA test to prove that they are related? What if the children get into a human trafficking network because they did not receive enough attention? Questions that keep my mind busy…
Humanity seems to be slowly disappearing from the face of the earth. It is something that I refuse to transmit to future generations. So, why don’t we start considering the people around us as human beings and do what’s right, to give example to the others and to show that we will not be the puppets of whatever leaders are above us? This way, we will be able to see that we resisted to the loss of morals of this world, that we were not part of the crime that we will soon be calling history.
Intern at Human Rights at Sea,
On secondment to Sea-Watch.
Photo credit: Judith Büthe