A Naval Service ship on Mediterranean rescue several years ago was unable to recover a migrant’s body that it had located in the water for several hours until it could confirm which EU state would accept it, a former mission member has recalled writes Lorna Siggins
The crew of the LÉ Samuel Beckett stood by for a total of four hours until eventually, the Maltese authorities agreed, Able Seaman Ian Trimble, a Naval Service diver, has said.
During that time, four EU coastal states in all had been contacted by the ship, he said, but the situation was complicated by the fact that the body was in international waters,
The harrowing experience was one of several recounted by the Naval Service crew, led by Commander Anthony Geraghty, at a Galway International Arts festival “First Thought” talk convened by Caitriona Crowe and chaired by Judy Murphy.
The LÉ Samuel Beckett (italics) was deployed on several missions during Ireland’s deployment of ships on migrant rescue between 2015 and 2018, when almost 18,000 people were rescued, two babies were delivered and 86 bodies were recovered by 11 Irish ships in all.
EU maritime missions were suspended earlier this year, after Italy’s far-right government refused to continue to accept migrants, but aerial reconnaissance continues. Up to 700 people are reported to have drowned this year so far, according to International Organisation for Migration figures, with an estimated 150 dying last week.
Commander Geraghty, who said he would return if Ireland’s assistance was sought as part of a resumed EU effort, described how he could never understand how anybody would get into a vessel with no lifejackets and no flares.
He said he could only conclude that the lives of migrants at home was “so bad that no matter what happens to them, it’s worth it” when risking a crossing at sea.
In his 29 years with the Naval Service, his three-month mission in the Mediterranean had been “the most fulfilling”, he said.
The barges crowded with between 250 and 800 migrants which the Naval Service came across were particularly challenging, as the crew would know that for every person on the top deck there would be many people locked below, Geraghty said.
If the barge capsized, as it regularly did, those locked below in the hold would drown.
Medical sick berth attendant Seán Doyle said most of the injuries he treated were chemical burns from fuel, along with dehydration and exhaustion.
“I don’t think anything really prepared us...I saw things I wouldn’t want to see, and wouldn’t want anyone else to see,”Petty Officer Trish O’Sullivan, an electrician, said.
O’Sullivan, who served on two Mediterranean missions in 2015 and 2016, said that “military rank goes out the window” during a rescue.
“When you are trying to get everyone on board, safety is paramount,” she said, adding that she did between 700 and 800 squats one day while searching people who were being taken on board ship.
While she recovered several nails and blades, most people carried photos, family albums, heirlooms, and food.
“There might be a drawing their daughter had made...and their clothes would be covered in petrol and faeces, “she said.
Some had little or no clothing and “we tried to protect people’s dignity,” O’Sullivan said.
The four LÉ Samuel Beckett crew showed an excerpt from the documentary, The Crossing, directed by Judy Kelly, which was filmed onboard the ship during its first Mediterranean deployment and broadcast in 2016.
The LÉ Samuel Beckett was deployed in 2016 under a bilateral agreement with Italy, Operation Pontus, and latterly in 2018 under the EU NavFOR Med Operation Sophia which was primarily focused on security and disrupting smuggler activity, and on rescue.
Some 600 Naval Service crew, including 40 medical staff with some Army and Air Corps participants, served on the 11 missions, which were an average of three months in duration, and involved an additional tax-free allowance of about €70 a day while aboard.
Last week, non-governmental organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) confirmed that it was resuming its rescue operations in the central Mediterranean.
The decision was taken after what the NGO said was a “two-year campaign by virtually all EU governments to stop humanitarian action at sea”.
MSF has also condemned the recent return of migrants, caught at sea by the Libyan Coast guard, to the Libyan Tajoura detention centre which was bombed in July, killing 60 people and injuring many others.