Doctors Without Borders’ HANNAH WALLACE BOWMAN tells The Civil Fleet about the medical charity’s imminent return to the central Mediterranean onboard the Sea Watch 4
“I AM a bit apprehensive. Everything is more uncertain than it was at the beginning of the year, what with the challenges we face around Covid-19 and so on,” Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) communications manager Hannah Wallace Bowman tells me from the deck of a new rescue ship.
“You never really know what to expect when it comes to search and rescue in the Mediterranean. But this time it does feel — especially with the state hostility towards the work that we’re trying to do — that all bets are off.”
I last spoke with Bowman in October 2019. Back then MSF was working with the European rescue charity SOS Mediterranee onboard their ship, the Ocean Viking. This spring, however, MSF and SOS Mediterranee parted ways, citing differences over how they should respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
MSF announced last week that it would resume saving lives in the Mediterranean but this time onboard German NGO Sea Watch’s newest vessel, the Sea Watch 4.
Despite the apprehension Bowman is eager to get back to sea, having been out of the water since the Italian government placed the Ocean Viking into quarantine following the rescue of 276 people in February.
“We were stuck in quarantine on the ship until the end of April. It was a hugely frustrating time for everyone onboard. We knew there were a significant number of people departing from the Libyan Coast over the Easter weekend.
“We were on a ship that was ready to go but were unable to get there. Twelve people ended up dying over that weekend. It took quite a significant toll on the crew.”
“I’m really pleased that we’ve managed to get back to sea and respond because the stasis MSF has been held in for the last few months has been really difficult. Especially as we know the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean is significantly up on last year.
“There are lots of people trying to cross and the majority of them aren’t making it to Europe. They’re being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard.
“And obviously there’s been this new trend of the Maltese drafting in private merchant and fishing vessels to incept people and hand them over to the Libyan Coastguard.
“We’ve also seen an escalation in the relinquishing of responsibility even in those areas that were under European authority. Now the Libyan Coastguard are being invited into those places in order to take people back.”
The Sea Watch 4 began its life not as a rescue ship, but as an oceanographic research vessel called Poseidon. Sea Watch and United4Rescue, a civil society coalition of over 500 European groups led by the Protestant Church in Germany, bought the ship in February and refitted it for its new humanitarian purpose.
The Italian and Maltese governments are unlikely to welcome the Sea Watch 4. When Covid-19 hit, the two countries were quick to use the pandemic as an excuse to close their borders to refugees rescued at sea and to treat NGO rescuers much harsher.
Earlier this year, the Italian authorities seized both the Alan Kurdi and the Aita Mari NGO ships for over a month for a string of supposed safety breaches — such as, in the latter ship’s case, the fridge containing a small packet of expired jam.
The Ocean Viking and the Sea Watch 3 are currently being held on Sicily for similar flimsy technicalities too.
Bowman says the Sea Watch 4’s crew is not complacent about the prospect of a similar scenario, nor of being held off at sea for days or even weeks while Europe squabbles over which country will host the people they will have saved.
“We’ll be doing a few things differently this time,” she says. “Everbody will have their temperature taken when they come onboard. If someone has a temperature above 37.5 or if they’re symptomatic, then they’ll immediately be flagged and isolated for a follow up.
“We will endeavour to cap the rescue in terms of the numbers of people we bring on board in the event we are held off at sea for an extended period of time, so that we can maintain some sort of physical distancing.
“But obviously, it’s the captain’s obligation to respond to any distress cases and if we’re the best placed ship to respond — which is likely as Malta seems to be completely relinquishing any kind of responsibility for what’s happening even within its own search and rescue area — then the prospect of us having to rescue more people when we’re already waiting for a port of safety is something we’re also having to consider.”
There was a brief period towards the end of last year when Europe was not subjecting rescued refugees on NGO ships to weeks-long stand-offs. But now Covid is being used to turn every sea rescue into a war of attrition.
“A stand-off already takes a significant toll on everyone onboard because you’re being held at sea in a situation where there’s such a huge amount of uncertainty. The rescued have already been through a significant amount of trauma and you can’t offer them anything by way of reassurance.
“All you can really do is keep repeating to them that we’re not going to take you back to Libya. But as the days — and sometimes even weeks now — start to tick by, you can image the level of restlessness increases.
“As yet, I haven’t been in a situation where everyone is having to wear masks and heavy PPE. I can imagine that’s going to be another level of complexity, especially in the summer heat.
“Oftentimes you are waiting in a stand-off position when you can’t see the land. So you’re just kind of floating in space and time starts to run into itself; it’s a kind of groundhog day reality.
“We try and create routine for ourselves and for the rescued people on board.
“One of the ways we have tried to defuse tension and reassure people in the past is having daily meetings on board the ship. You bring them together and try and give them an update in terms of where negotiations are, what we know, what we don’t know, and try to be as open and transparent as possible.
“The ship becomes a little community unto itself. But there’s only so much you can do. And after a while everyone becomes exhausted.”
Global pandemic or no, the numbers of people fleeing war-torn Libya have not stopped.
In fact, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Libya’s most recent maritime update, the numbers of monthly departures rose from 395 in April to 1,496 in June. The numbers dipped slightly last month to 1,143 departures, 317 more than in July 2019.
Other than the NGOs, there have been no other dedicated search and rescue ships in the central Mediterranean since the European Union pulled its own ships from the region last year.
While the Libyan Coastguard — trained, equipped and supported by the EU — does occasionally prevent people from drowning, it does not rescue them.
It sends them back to inhumane detention centres where torture, rape and slavery have been well documented by human rights organisations. And it is only able to do this with the assistance of the EU border agency Frontex’s planes.
The IOM says more than 7,000 people have been returned to the North African country this year. Many are unaccounted for.
“Over the past year, being on board a rescue ship kind of became my normality,” Bowman says when I ask her how it feels to know that she will soon meet more people that would have otherwise been left to die.
“You build up a layer of some sort of protection and you exist in this space of emergency response. You’re waking up in the middle of the night. You’re finding people at sea who, just before you arrived, thought that these were going to be their last few hours on Earth.
“In order to do the job there’s a level of removal.
“And then having these few months off, I’ve had a bit more of a chance to process things and I do find there’re certain memories that now, when I have a chance to reflect on them, they hit me much harder.
“I remember that we were approaching a wooden boat that we’d been searching for quite a long time. They’d called [the refugee maritime distress hotline network] Alarm Phone and we knew the situation onboard was deteriorating.
“And I just remember as we approached, we couldn’t see anything and then just hearing this baby’s crying coming through the dark.
“There’s just something about that sound. In these moments that I’ve had to decompress a little bit, that’s one of the things I keep remembering, the sound of that baby crying in the dark.
“Now I’m sort of psyching myself up, ready to go back to be doing rescues again. It’s more daunting going back in. You allow your barriers to come down. You start to relax a bit more. You start to precess things. And now we’re gearing up.
“Got to get ready for rescue again.”
Hannah Wallace Bowman is a communications manager for MSF.