As Europe tries to stop the boats, lifeguards from the calm beaches of Barcelona are stepping in to save lives on the open sea.
The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program spent 10 days sailing the Mediterranean with the Spanish rescue group Open Arms, an NGO founded by lifeguards who once patrolled the calm beaches of Barcelona.
It proudly claims to have rescued 62,000 refugees and migrants on the open sea since it was founded six years ago.
Italy and Malta, where most migrants boats head, claim the group enables people-smuggling and attempt to stop the boat from taking distressed migrants to shore.
Take for example one night out on the open seas when the rescue group spotted a small wooden boat with more than 50 people crammed inside — anxious mothers, crying babies, old men, young men and frightened children.
There’s no navigator, no safety gear and just an outboard motor sputtering like it is running on fumes in the vastness of the Mediterranean.
The rescue team, led by Gerard Canals, secures the wooden boat with an inflatable orange buoy, checks for injuries, hands out water and reassures the distraught passengers that help is coming soon.
But back on the Open Arms yacht, the Greek captain, Savvas Kourepinis, has been pleading over the radio for an hour for the Maltese or Italian coastguards to come.
Both are refusing. An Italian coast guard base is just 13 nautical miles away on the island of Lampedusa but the operators are now insisting he contact the Maltese authorities.
“I am in the sea trying to keep the people alive,” Savvas shouts during the TV program, barely able to control his anger. “And you say me to call Malta! Serious?”
The Maltese rescue service doesn’t pick up the phone so eventually the Italian coastguard agrees to connect Savvas to the Maltese radio room.
“Can you kindly send an email?” comes the crackly reply of the Maltese operator. Savvas again bites down his rage.
An hour earlier, Gerard Canals sent Malta an email giving full details of “the target,” the international rescue parlance for a possible boat in distress. There was no reply.
At dawn, after hours of badgering, the Italians finally relent and send out a coastguard vessel to collect the migrants. The Maltese rescue authority, part of the Maltese Armed Forces, never even replied.
Soon, more migrant boats appear on the horizon and the exhausted crew begin another sleepless day and night of rescues.
On its 83rd mission, the Open Arms team went to the aid of 398 migrants, keeping every one of them safe as it cajoled, begged, pressured and embarrassed the Italian coastguard to come.
Oscar Camps, who is the founder and director of Open Arms, tells Foreign Correspondent the team will keep going back as long as there are lives to be saved.
“Nothing is more important than protecting life at sea. Saving lives in international waters is not a crime. It is a duty,” Camps said.
Source: ABC News.