Migrant Crisis

Bringing hope - and help - to the Mediterranean migrant crisis

The Search and Rescue ship the MV Aquarius
The Search and Rescue ship the MV Aquarius RFI/Matthew Kay

Radio France Internationale journalist Matthew Kay joined the crew on board the MV Aquarius, one of the Mediterranean ships jointly managed by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée. The ship is one of a handful of ships whose purpose is to help those whose desperate bid to make it to European soil more often than not ends up adrift on the deadly Mediterranean Sea.


Hello, I’m looking for the Aquarius,” I ask the guards at the harbor entrance.

I’m greeted with blank stares.

“It’s a rescue ship,” I venture again. Still nothing.

“You know? The big orange one!”

“Ah! The big orange boat! Yes, it’s on the other side of the harbour!”

When I first set eye on the MV Aquarius, a 77-metre survey vessel refitted for search and rescue operations, she is docked at her current home, the Sicilian port of Catania.

Modest in size perhaps, among cruise liners and container ships, yet she is unmistakable – life-jacket orange, she gets noticed. The words SOS Méditerranée and Médecins sans Frontières give more than just a clue as to the ship’s mission.

Since February this year the ship has saved nearly four thousand people packed in often terrifying conditions aboard unseaworthy boats or counterfeit inflatable rafts. It has transferred a further two-thousand from other rescue boats and brought them safely to Europe.

Run jointly by the two NGOs Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée it operates in a search and rescue zone off the Libyan coast. Here they are packed aboard boats by people smugglers and told that Italy is just three hours away.

“The smugglers point to lights from oil rigs and tell them it’s Italy,’ says Alva White, MSF’s communications manager on board.

“Sometimes when we come across people in a boat they say ‘It’s ok we’re nearly there!’ In reality they’re just a few miles of the Libyan coast.”

If the conditions are good, it takes the Aquarius about 32 hours to cross the Mediterranean to the rescue zone.

The ship is equipped to transport, feed and, when necessary, give medical treatment up to 500 migrants at any given time.

Rescue operations are co-ordinated with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, an Italian organisation which helps direct the dozen or so search and rescue vessels run by NGOs and civilian organisations.

Once rescued women and children are taken inside the ship to a large room designated the ‘shelter’.

The ship’s doctor, Sara Giles says many of the women they save have been raped or abused by the people traffickers and need a safe space where they can talk to a physician or a nurse.

“But mostly they are in good physical condition when they reach us.
Sick or injured people rarely make the journey onto the smugglers’ boats,” she says lowering her head.

“After a rescue, this is where we put the men,” explains Edward Taylor, MSF’s logistician, showing me the rear deck of the ship. “It’s okay during the summer months, but people would catch hypothermia in the winter. So we’re building a shelter, to keep people dry.”

The ship will continue operating right through the winter, when many smaller search and rescue boats will be forced to stop.

Even though fewer attempts to cross the Mediterranean are made during the winter months, the smugglers make tens of thousands of dollars out of every boat that leaves Libya.

“They don’t care if the boat makes it or not,” says Alva White. “They just pack as many people on as

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning