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We, on board of MV Humanity1

Life on the ship of the German NGO SOS Humanity involved in rescuing the lives of migrants in the Mediterranean, which elected Syracuse as its home port for crew changes

by Luciana Bedogni - Wednesday 22 November 2023 - 669 letture

By now it has become an automatic gesture. Crossing the bridge of Ponte Umbertino, one’s gaze turns to Syracuse’s Grand Harbor, right where the Coast Guard headquarters is, in search of the silhouette of the Humanity1: to see if it has departed for rescue missions in the Mediterranean, or if it has returned for a crew change. Sometimes the sight is curious: the Humanity1, a ship 60 meters long and 11 meters wide, is moored on the pier among colossal cruise ships, fishing boats, tourist tour boats, and navy corvettes. An image that alone describes the many ways of living at and going to sea. The ship Humanity1, whose first rescue mission was in 2022, was built in 1976 and was initially intended for marine scientific research (its initial name was Poseidon). It is considered one of the largest and best-equipped NGO rescue vessels in the Mediterranean: it can carry up to 300 people (however, as many as more than 400 shipwrecked people happened to be rescued), a protected area for women, one for minors, and a medical clinic are provided on board. Each mission is organized to stay at sea for 3 to 4 weeks. Crew change is scheduled at the end of each period. On board the Humanity1 we are taken on a tour of the ship’s spaces as the story we offer begins. It is early October, after a long technical stop at the port of Syracuse, the new crew has been formed and is getting ready to depart. Everyone is busy, some at their computers, some performing final maintenance work on the ship (hammer blows on metal can be heard in the background). Certainly, this is an intense phase, made up of operational training, handovers from one crew to another, and in-person and online coordination meetings: with the NGO SOS Humanity office in Berlin, with the psychological support team, with the legal support team, with the other NGOs patrolling the Mediterranean.

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La nave Humanity1 al porto di Siracusa - The ship Humanity1 in the port of Syracuse

It is in this climate that our conversation takes place with Viviana (we omit last names to protect the identities of the people involved in the rescues n.d.r.), coordinator of the sea rescue teams, and with Christina, who is part of the Crewing team and responsible for recruitment and selection of the Operational crew..

How could we describe this phase aboard Humanity1?

"By now the new crew is fully onboarded", explains Viviana. "We have a very intense week of training planned. I, for example, am training my team for sea rescue, both the theoretical and practical parts. The medics then train us for first aid activities: each of us has to be able to intervene in a medical emergency both on board and in the life rafts. We also spend a lot of time on post-rescue activities involving the care of rescued people: from registration, to distribution of items for basic necessities, or meals. Finished this first week of training we will be in the meantime in navigation, so we will do simulations of rescues, from the simplest to the most critical ones, also on board the Rhibs in the open water. Nothing is left to chance, we follow very detailed, now proven procedures during each mission".

The crews of the Humanity1 that Viviana mentions consists of 28 people, men and women, aged 23 to 70, of different nationalities, and a guest journalist: they include the maritime staff (the captain, officers, able seafarers, and engineers), the medical team (the doctor, nurse, midwife, and psychologist), the sea rescue team, the kitchen staff, and the communication staff. Much of the crew is made up of experienced people, some of them are salaried (this is the case with the seafarers), while the other people on board, this is a minority (12 people), are volunteers chosen after a long and thorough selection process.

"We have chosen to call ourselves SOS Humanity", Christina stresses, "and we want to be consistent with our name so we appeal to people of all nationalities. We get hundreds of applications on board from all over the world: from men and women of all ages. Before we contact people we evaluate their resumes very well: professional profile, work experience, language skills. In the next stage we conduct an online interview that can last up to two hours. We have developed a system of questions to get a 360-degree understanding of what kind of human being we have in front of us: we are particularly interested in delving into their motivation, what they think about certain content, whether they are psychologically ready to deal with such a demanding experience and intense and prolonged stressful situations. We then need to assess which people will be part of each crew: indeed, we need to be concerned about forming teams that can fit well together. Then, as Viviana has already explained, the members of each crew are accompanied and involved through training, participation in meetings, coordination meetings etc.".

What is the mood, the expectation, with which these missions at sea begin?

"It depends!" - Viviana continues. "You have to distinguish between those who have been doing this rescue activity for longer and those who have less experience, or are younger. Those who participate the first few times experience the mission with a strong emotional impact, in a more totalizing way, and it is good and right that this is so. This also stems from the fact that volunteers are highly motivated to offer their skills for a noble reason: saving lives at sea. Those with more experience, on the other hand, are familiar with the context, the dynamics, and probably know what to expect not only with respect to external events that may occur, but also from themselves. Therefore, those with more experience can support and sustain those with less".

What are the situations that put the most strain on the crew?

"The ship is a small community" - continues Viviana. "This forces the people who live and work on the ship to have very limited spaces. Our life takes place in sixty meters of the ship for more than a month. You understand that this already could constitute a limitation. However, I must say that from this point of view we have not had very big problems, those who come on board are prepared. The reasons for greater stress may be related to times when we have been at sea for a long time, we have no requests for action, maybe there is bad weather, or you are seasick. This waiting, this non-action, can leave room for frustration.

We in the coordination team have to manage these dynamics at the group level by trying to keep people engaged and their motivation high at all times. Paradoxically, when there are so many rescues, the situation is easier to manage psychologically because there is so much action and we are very busy. Then, of course, complex situations occur during and after rescues. There are rescues where everything goes well, we don’t have so many people on board, although then we have to make long crossings to reach a safe port of disembarkation. The people rescued are always very traumatized, stressed, so we have to do long shifts here on deck, at day and at night. Then there are the rescues, the more critical ones, with many people on board, where there are also casualties, or operations that are carried out in bad weather. These are all situations that create significant emotional stress, especially for those who are new to these experiences".

When a mission starts, who decides which area of the Mediterranean to patrol?

"We make these strategic decisions as rescue coordinators, the SOS Humanity Operations directorate and the ship’s commander. We choose areas that are not covered by other NGOs, we also make decisions based on weather conditions. As soon as we enter the SAR area (areas for search and rescue activities at sea), in international waters, we inform the relevant maritime authorities by notifying them of the area we are patrolling and that we are ready to provide assistance and rescue if needed. We are in constant contact with the Coast Guard, we coordinate our interventions with them, we don’t do anything without consulting with them. And still, we always operate in strict compliance with the "law of the sea"".

You, Viviana, told us earlier that you are the coordinator of the team that conducts the operation of sea rescue aboard the Rhibs. How do you move in these cases, what are the steps you take?

"When we conduct a rescue operation we follow different procedures, we have different strategies. The first thing I always evaluate when we start evacuating people, is the weight balance on the boats that might otherwise capsize. These are operations that we have to do carefully, we have to approach slowly, we have to make the persons move slowly. When we are in the water it is important to do everything as best as we can and safely, if we don’t feel safe, we back off. We also have limits and we have to respect them. The sea is stronger than we are and always has surprises in store. We need to keep our eyes wide open and be responsive".

What happens on board when you have so many people exhausted and exasperated by very hard experiences?

"It happened that we had even more than 400 people on board. Having so many people on this ship" - Viviana continues - "means not even being able to walk on the deck. The bathrooms are always crowded with huge lines. Then people of different nationalities have to live together on board, referring to different cultures, coming from very stressful and traumatic experiences from all points of view, both physical and psychological. Such a situation drawn out for a long time, made worse by these long sailings that they make us do, can cause very conflictual situations on board, situations that we have to try to mediate and resolve. That’s why, as I said before, we have to have competent people in the crew, who have had long experience in refugee and asylum seeker camps, as language mediators, who must not only translate, but know how to speak and intervene. We always keep calm, this is part of the professionalism we have developed. Even in these situations that are so difficult and complex to manage we still try to have spaces for ourselves as well, we have defined shifts, we try to respect other people’s spaces. Our ship is called Humanity1 for a reason, we are not a military ship, if there is any one of us who needs support, we are all ready, even take over".

"We as an NGO", Christina continued, "have a psychological support team for the survivors, but also for our crew. There is a German association that specializes in giving psychological support to "rescuers" (police, firefighters, ambulance personnel, etc.), which we can call at any time. If there is a serious crisis on board, they are also willing to come here in person. It happened in the past with our ship Aquarius, for example, when a boat happened to call for rescue and we arrived too late. We found the boat capsized and traces of victims. These are moments of great crisis, we feel helpless, we say to ourselves "if we had arrived earlier, we could have rescued them," guilt comes out. So, we felt the need as SOS Humanity to have strong support for our crew".

The Italian government, in 2023, pushed through several decrees on immigration issues, among them the decree law against NGOs, with the intention of reducing your operations, primarily through the strategy of assigning distant ports. As if the presence of NGO rescue ships in the Mediterranean was to blame for the increase in landings. Despite the fact that data released by the Italian Ministry of the Interior show that a large proportion of the people who landed on our shores were rescued by the Coast Guard and Frontex. Only 4 percent were rescued by NGOs.

"In addition to this data", Christina argues, "several research studies have been published that prove that there is no link between our presence in the Mediterranean and the increase in landings. The thing that we have been able to verify over time is that the increase in departures is determined instead by weather conditions. Regarding the laws you mentioned, we as an NGO SOS Humanity have a legal team that constantly supports us, even in the rescue and disembarkation phases, precisely because Italian and European legislation on these issues is constantly evolving and in any case each law leaves room for interpretation. Together with other NGOs we have made a legal action against the decision on the ports of disembarkation that is ongoing, and we are working to verify the possibility of making real appeals. We are trying through public meetings, but also on our social media, to raise awareness about these issues. Our work is not limited to rescuing and assisting people, but we try to do justice to their experience by collecting their testimonies, demonstrating and denouncing human rights violations that happen at sea. From this point of view, we are very active and very present".

What would be desirable to see happen in the Mediterranean to prevent so many people from dying at sea?

"At this precise moment", Viviana says, "as far as the sea is concerned, the only solution is to try to create a search and rescue set-up that is covered both by the authorities and by NGO ships, which are present in the Mediterranean precisely to fill gaps that are also institutional. Another thing that should be avoided is to give space and power to third countries, such as Libya, to carry out interceptions and rejections, which are human rights violations anyway and are illegal".

What happens at the moment of disembarkation, when you have to say goodbye to the people you rescued, after days of sailing, after knowing so many of their stories?

"Both for us and for them", Viviana admits, "that of disembarkation is a very important, emotional and intense moment. During navigation you spend so much time with these people, you share small spaces with them, you get to know their difficult stories. They feel protected by us, for them the first safe place is this ship. At the moment of saying goodbye many of them cry. In the last disembarkation there was an Imam, the religious leader of everyone on board, a very charismatic person. Before disembarking he burst into tears like a child. He said "I will never forget what you have done for us, for me and for all the people I take care of, even with prayer." For them, a new path opens up that we wish will be one of hope".

"We at SOS Humanity can make sure that they do not lose their lives at sea", Christina concludes, "about what happens on land we no longer have any influence. We have to trust that other people and other organizations, even EU states, will take care of these people who are not numbers, they are human beings: each of them has their own story, their own family, they have their own dreams. The hardest thing is letting them go and not knowing what will become of them".

This article/interview by Luciana Bedogni is spread by LAltraCitta Siracusa.

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