THE CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN — “Leave the area immediately now,” the voice from the coast guard vessel al-Khifa said again. “I am the authority here. Leave the area immediately now.”
It was 4 a.m. when the threat to the Aquarius, rocking in international waters around 30 miles from Libya, came over the radio.
Not visible was a tiny wooden boat, crowded with the people the NGO ship was attempting to rescue. They had fled from Zuwara, Libya, the night before, wading out to the vessel they hoped would take them away from danger and into Europe. Now these men, women, and children (and one dog) had been unwittingly caught in a standoff between the Libyan coast guard and an international refugee search and rescue boat.
Midway through the Aquarius’s last mission, BuzzFeed News was onboard, witnessing just how difficult these rescue operations have become. There, floating in the central Mediterranean Sea, the humanitarian vessel had been impeded at every step. The Libyans were just the latest obstacle.
As the sun came up, the outline of al-Khifa approached. “You have made a big problem for us,” the radio said. “You are aiding smugglers and illegal migrants. We told you to observe. As usual you disobeyed our instructions. We are going to approach.”
From the bridge — the hushed control center of the ship, lit only by the red glow of the radar — the order was given to “fall back, nice and calm.” The people from the wooden boat, caught in the sights of the Aquarius for hours, were no closer to safety, their would-be rescuers forced away by the presence of the Libyans.
“We could see a vessel in the distance and we kind of knew that was the Libyan coast guard,” said 20-year-old crew member Lotte Bridgham, perched in one of two rubber motorboats equipped for rescue missions. “It was [like] a fucking warship out of Mordor.”
Since its launch in 2016, the Aquarius, run by NGOs Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, has put out to sea 44 times — each time attracting more controversy. BuzzFeed News joined the latest mission for 20 days in September to see how these search and rescue missions function amid international anti-refugee sentiment.
Politically, European nations are ignoring the deaths in the central Mediterranean, outsourcing the problem to the Libyans. Culturally, Europeans are tired of the arrival of refugees and migrants — as demonstrated by the shift to the right in elections across the continent.
This has translated into the life-saving mission of the ship becoming harder and harder. The question now is: Can search and rescue ships like the Aquarius really continue to save hundreds of people from drowning?
“The situation is bullshit. I wouldn’t call myself a humanitarian. You wouldn’t call the fire brigade humanitarian,” 33-year-old Nick Romaniuk, SOS Méditerranée search and rescue coordinator, said. “People are dying at sea. It is as simple as that.”
Approximately 14,743 men, women, and children have died attempting to cross the sea from starting points in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia since 2014, according to the Missing Migrants project. But numbers are down: The International Organization for Migration states that 128,082 successfully made the journey in 2017, but only 39,145 have done so this year. For the dwindling number of people attempting to cross, the journey has never been so dangerous: In July of this year, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) put the figure at one person drowning for every seven who cross the Mediterranean.
The Aquarius is one of the few NGO boats still working to save lives in the central Mediterranean. Since its launch in 2016, according to the ship’s records, it has saved the lives of 29,523 people trying to cross the sea — and in doing so has become synonymous with the refugee crisis, both provoking hate and earning respect every time it sets out.
The 2,000-ton ship costs approximately $12,600 daily to run — split between SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders — and operates in international waters off the Libyan coast, where the majority of rubber and wooden boats depart. When a boat is located, SOS Méditerranée teams launch two inflatable motorboats (known as RHIBs) to scoop people from the water and transfer them back to the Aquarius. MSF’s onboard medical team — a doctor, a midwife, and two nurses — immediately triage and treat the rescued people. Then, the Aquarius takes those it has rescued to Europe and immediately returns to international waters to continue working.
At least, that’s how it used to work.
When the Aquarius set sail, accompanied by BuzzFeed News, on its latest mission, from Marseille, France, on Sept. 15, it had been in port for more than two weeks. It was unable to leave because it had lost the right to sail under the flag of Gibraltar on Aug. 13. Under marine law, any vessel sailing in international waters must be registered with a state. A ship without a flag is not quite a pirate vessel, but it’s not far off, and, crucially, a vessel’s flag provides protection should it run into difficulties on the open seas. Nearly a month passed before SOS Méditerranée and MSF secured a Panamanian flag — which accounts for roughly 18% of the world’s shipping — and the ship could safely depart.
But whenever the Aquarius enters the waters off Libya, it now faces another problem: The radios go silent. Speaking to BuzzFeed News, the crew were unable to explain why since their last mission (more than a month previously) the ship has no longer been receiving the standard radio messages — usually transmitted across a channel available to all vessels in the area — once it enters the seas under the authority of the Libyan coast guard.
“It’s a complete blackout of information to us,” Romaniuk, who has worked on rescue ships in the central Mediterranean for three years, said. “It was hard in the beginning — there have been thousands of people dying because the actual rescue operation itself is difficult — but now the search part of it is becoming even more complicated.”
The ship has become reliant on the eyes of the SOS Méditerranée team on watch (taken in hourly shifts from sunrise to sunset), overheard snatches of radio communications between merchant vessels, and distress signals phoned in by the departing boats via land-based NGOs. The crew doesn’t know — and often aren’t informed until it is too late — when there are boats in distress. And when they are, they can be pitched into ugly confrontations with the Libyan coast guard.
Partly, this stems from an agreement with the Libyan government, negotiated by the Italian politician Marco Minniti in 2017, that saw the Libyans receive 43 million euros of EU funds to tackle Europe’s refugee crisis from their shores. They did so with dramatic effect. The number of boats pulled back to Libya increased by an estimated 194%, or roughly 13,000 people, since the agreement. The EU deal also broke with one of the key conventions of maritime rescues, that people must be returned to an internationally understood place of safety. The United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights agree Libya is not a safe place.
Last mission, 11 out of 42 women eventually explicitly told MSF’s midwife, 32-year-old Nina Egger, that they had been sexually assaulted — “and that’s just the number of women who came to me,” she said. She has heard women tell of gang rapes, men forced to rape one another or the women under their protection, mothers raped in front of children, and people raped to death with objects. Basically, Libya has taken “sexual violence to another level.” And the country recently broke back out into open civil war.
“We know that Tripoli is falling apart,” Egger explained. “We don’t know how the Libyan coast guard is working at the moment, if it is working properly. At least those people will not drown. We don’t know what’s better.”
European politicians have averted their eyes, letting the Libyan coast guard do the dirty work — an attempt to save their own political skins as immigration became a poisonous topic among voters in Europe.
Germany, once seen as the continent’s cheerleader for migration, has witnessed the far right marching against and attacking migrants, turbo-charged by rumors online. France tightened its immigration rules in July, including a measure that would allow unauthorized migrants to be detained for up to a year, much to the dismay of human rights groups. Spain has taken only 11% of its EU quota of refugees, and the new leader of the country’s right-wing Popular Front recently promised to “defend the borders” against “millions” of migrants.
And spearheading this attitude shift is Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has a special dislike of the Aquarius, which he tweeted about repeatedly throughout the latest voyage. In recent remarks, he claimed the ship was “aiding illegal immigration and smugglers,” and promised that there would be no safe port for the Aquarius when it carried migrants — and by extension any other vessel performing rescues.
The wider implications are far-reaching. If a ship’s crew is unsure whether they will be allowed back into European waters if they are carrying migrants or refugees, they simply won’t make the rescue in the first place. “Conventions are only as strong as the people following them,” Tom de Kok, 39, acting MSF coordinator, explained. “We are in the process of destroying something that has been a rampart of civilization for 2,000 years. Rescue at sea is a core value of mariners.”
Onboard the Aquarius, as it approached the small wooden boat in distress in the middle of the night, it felt as if the NGO ship was the only one still playing by the rules.
F., a 37-year-old father of four, didn’t know any of this. He was in that wooden boat with his family packed around him as the Aquarius, and then the Libyan coast guard, approached. BuzzFeed News is identifying F. by only his first initial because he feared that being named could endanger his family back in Libya.
Romaniuk and F. — one above, one in the water below — watched with mounting horror as the Libyan vessel got closer and closer. F., clutching his youngest child, 2-year-old Oles, was terrified.
“That’s the first time that I felt such fear,” Romaniuk said.
Even though the Aquarius was following maritime conventions, the Libyans didn’t seem to care. In accordance with sea law, the Aquarius had been the nearest ship safely able to perform a rescue for a boat in distress, so had swung into operation to do so. Romaniuk had repeatedly contacted the Italian marine coordinating center in Rome, but — acting against conventions — the Italians deferred authority to the Libyans. Those same Libyans simultaneously threatened to take the wooden boat to Libya and demanded that Aquarius leave the area immediately, without performing a rescue.
F. was unaware that up in the Aquarius’s bridge, Romaniuk, working alongside 24-year-old Seraina Eldada, was now desperately negotiating in Arabic with the Libyans for the lives of his family and the 41 other people on the boat.
Lotte Bridgham, trying to get the people from the wooden boat onto the rubber motorboat, knew that the moment she and the crew lost control of the situation, the rescue could become deadly, and, through an interpreter, she was desperately trying to communicate what was going on. “[As] the vessel approached you could see people looking around and feeling very…tense, almost like they lost trust for a second, like we were waiting for the Libyan coast guard,” said Bridgham, who works for SOS Méditerranée. “To be honest, I thought we would genuinely have to return the people.”
F. couldn’t talk to Bridgham from where he was on the water but he could see the boat and was frozen with terror. As an ethnic Berber and an atheist, he faced certain discrimination and persecution if he was returned to Libya.
Hours before, he had waded out to the rickety boat he had paid thousands of Libyan dinars to carry his family safely. They had left behind almost everything (including the family’s cat, Lily) for the hope of a brighter future in Europe. “I know many, many people have died. But I told [my wife] that maybe we will live, if we make the journey,” he said.
“In Libya, there [are] no open minds,” he said. When his eldest daughter started school, she was asked if there was a Qur’an in the family home, and she proudly told the teacher there wasn’t one. “[They told her,] ‘We burn you, you will go to the hell if you don’t believe.’ They are children,” F. said, visibly upset. “How can you say that?”
“I have no choice now. Libya — stay and I will die. Leave, and maybe I will live,” F. said.
Among those sharing the boat with F. and his family were 17 children and 14 women. There were 47 people onboard — 37 of them Libyans. F.’s family exemplifies the changing profile of those being picked up by the Aquarius. Previously, the bulk of people coming across the sea were already displaced from their countries of origin: Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, or Nigerians, for example. But, as seen by BuzzFeed News, the demographics of those being rescued are shifting.
In 2018, just over 400 Libyans had fled successfully to Europe by July, according to UNHCR data. Many cite the instability in the country after years of conflict following the demise of dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Some areas are now in the hands of a mishmash of militias, which control the population often through intimidation, fear, and violent extortion through kidnappings. Although relatively small in number, the people leaving demonstrate the volatility of a nation that has left many of its citizens no choice but to flee illegally — and further call into question the EU’s decision to financially support the Libyan coast guard in an effort to stop migration to its own nations.
The threats were still coming into the bridge from al-Khifa, but the tone was shifting now that there was an Arabic speaker on the line. Eldada motioned to Romaniuk. “They are ordering us to get back,” she said. “They say we must remain 80 miles from the coast, and if [we] disobey them again then they are saying you must come to Tripoli and face legal action.”
“Tell them we understand the situation. Tell them we have the women and children, and request permission to bring them onboard,” Romaniuk told Eldada. The message was quickly relayed in Arabic, the bridge silent except for Eldada’s soft voice.
“There’s so much responsibility on your shoulders in that moment, you can’t afford to think about that. You can’t afford to worry about failure: That’s not an option,” Eldada later said. “If any one of us — including myself — were not to deliver in that moment ... it’s over.”
Everyone in the bridge held their breath as Eldada spoke into the radio, all eyes fixed on the delicate tableau of lives in the balance on the calm waters beneath them. Suddenly, the Arabic stopped. A voice from al-Khifa, speaking in English, told the bridge: “We leave this situation to you.”
Romaniuk swung toward the radio, and the motorboats revved their engines, his team finally given the clear to get back to the Aquarius, back to safety and away from the Libyans.
“When we got the green light,” Bridgham said, “everyone suddenly took that breath.”
The joy was short-lived. The Libyans had given them permission to rescue the people and return them to Europe — but that rested on their flag, which had been removed by the Panamanian authorities only hours before. The crew of the Aquarius might have rescued 58 stateless people with no place to call home, but they themselves were now stateless, hundreds of miles from safety, and unsure where they would end up.
In the simplest terms, a ship’s flag is like a person’s passport. Without one, a vessel has neither freedom of movement nor the protection of the nation state it is registered with.
Panama’s decision to remove the Aquarius’s flag caught the team by surprise only hours before the rescue: The authorities didn’t see fit to warn either charity running the ship. The news came from a press release put out in the dead of night — but it didn’t stay quiet for long. Suddenly, the press was once again interested in the Aquarius, and the controversy over its activities reignited. Salvini immediately weighed in, stating the Aquarius wouldn’t be welcomed back to Italy, while Swiss and Irish politicians petitioned their governments to give the rescue vessel a chance to continue its work.
On the ship itself, a strange sense of calm reigned: The crew went on with their daily chores, looked after the rescued people, and fixed equipment, and all the while the ship steamed north to nowhere.
Publicly, MSF and SOS Méditerranée put out a carefully worded statement blaming the flag’s removal on the Italian government’s meddling.
Privately, the crew — who were initially told not to speak to reporters about the situation — fumed. “It is a joke. It’s insane,” Bridgham said. “Our fucking flag that has [been] withdrawn, for what? For political reasons, for economic pressures? It’s a joke how one state can have such control over the other.”
Salvini tweeted denying any involvement. The Italian interior ministry told BuzzFeed News via email, “The Ministry of Interior has never asked the Panama Authorities for anything.”
As the ship gobbled up the miles between Libya and European waters, the refugees and migrants started asking where they were heading.
“They are all under the impression that they will be in Europe in a jiffy,” said Eldada, who, despite her age, is among the longest-serving members on the Aquarius and is the point person for the rescued people. “Then they realize, oh, I won’t be, and now my family is going to think that I drowned because I told them probably that I would contact them soon. That is a really complicated situation.”
From the international waters off Libya, it usually takes the Aquarius roughly four days, with two of its four engines on, to reach European waters. The ship plotted a course for Malta — the nearest European port — but there was no indication that the Maltese would welcome them.
“What happens now?” F. asked repeatedly. “I can’t understand what is happening. [But] there is no chance for us to go back? I can’t go back.”
Finally within sight of land, the rescued people were told they would be taken to Malta, and there divided between Germany, Portugal, Spain, and France.
But the Aquarius wasn’t docking. Instead it began turning in massive circles, as a huge storm approached. The mood worsened: There was the land, there was Europe, there was Malta. Why weren’t they docking?
“The atmosphere is quite tense when the boat is not moving. It plays on the mood of everybody,” Edouard Courcelle, 36, a logistician with MSF, said. “It is a difficult atmosphere for the rescuers and the medical team.
“It’s like you have this atmosphere of mutiny. It’s a bad situation.”
As the ship turned, the storm began to hit. The crew handed out emergency blankets and plastic sleeping bags. While the women and children were inside — albeit sleeping on a floor — the men slept outside. The weather became so rough that the crew strung ropes across the deck for people to cling to as they made their way to the toilets.
“Those fuckers,” Ludo Duguépéroux, 35, a member of SOS Méditerranée team, raged at the Maltese. “Now it is too long,” he said. “That is so disrespectful for human dignity.”
“Fuck them,” he said. “I am just ashamed.”
The day before F., his family, and the rest of the rescuees would finally get off the Aquarius, F.’s son was attacked by an older Libyan boy. The boy wanted some of his son’s toys.
A male crew member had to physically restrain the older child. As he struggled to keep the two apart, the older child viciously clawed at F.’s son’s eyes.
“I haven’t seen children fight like that,” the MSF crew member said. “That wasn’t normal.”
F. explained his children didn’t speak the same language as the other Libyans onboard; instead, they spoke a dialect of Zuwara and the persecuted Berber people, and that — coupled with their mother not wearing a headscarf — was too much difference for many Libyans. “The people here, some of them do not understand,” he sighed, rocking a still-weeping Adan, and the longer the ship stayed at sea the worse the atmosphere got.
Finally, Romaniuk received the all-clear — with an unprecedented condition. The Aquarius wouldn’t be allowed into Maltese waters, he was told. Instead, the ship would be met in international waters by the Maltese navy, which would transfer the people to Malta. Without a flag, and with the atmosphere onboard proving harder and harder to manage, Romaniuk took the offer and scheduled the transfer.
For the second time in a week, a military-looking vessel cruised up to the Aquarius. The Maltese ship coordinated with Romaniuk, realizing only moments before the transfer that they had failed to bring children’s life jackets. “Give them ours, and we’ll coordinate with an NGO in Malta about getting them back,” Romaniuk told his crew.
Many of the women began weeping as they were put back on the very rubber motorboats that had first rescued them. F., helping load his family onto the motorboat, all frantically waving at the crew, turned and said, “Today is maybe the last good day.”
Once the rescuees disappeared into the stern of the Maltese vessel, the Aquarius’s crew lost all contact. They were told the people would be deposited in Malta’s naval base and transported again — this time to an “open” center in a scruffy part of the capital, Valletta.
BuzzFeed News was unable to gain entry to the center, although the people — including F. and his family — were visible through a wire fence. In a follow-up interview with BuzzFeed News, almost three weeks after they arrived in Malta, F. confirmed that he and his family were still in the center. He was unsure when they would leave or where they would end up.
“Our relationship with these people ends as soon as they step off the gangway of our ship. We don’t have any power or ability beyond that point,” Eldada said. “We are a search and rescue ship — that’s where our responsibility ends. And that’s tough.”
Like the people who they rescued, the crew of the Aquarius is unsure who will take them in. For now, the ship has returned to Marseille, where it lies in the dock petitioning for a new flag to let it sail again. There’s no indication how long this may take. People continue to drown in the central Mediterranean, and the Libyan coast guard continues to pull people back to uncertainty, persecution, and arbitrary detention.
“Maybe the worst situations are the ones we don’t know about,” Romaniuk said during the mission. “I know that I can’t save everybody ... [and] if we are going to be stuck somewhere 600 miles away, there is absolutely nothing we can do.”