Volunteers in the sky attempt to keep watch on migrant boats

Nearly 23,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to reach Europe from Africa since 2014, according to the UN.

Migrants on small boat
Migrants on small boat

A humanitarian effort seeking to assist in the rescue of migrants fleeing Libya to Europe by boat and monitor human rights violations has taken to the skies above the Mediterranean Sea.

The volunteers on board the Seabird watch from above as flimsy boats attempt the perilous crossing – with nearly 23,000 people now having died or gone missing while attempting to reach Europe since 2014, according to the UN.

The twin-engine plane, owned by the German organisation Sea-Watch, is tasked with documenting human rights violations committed against migrants at sea and relaying distress cases to nearby ships and authorities who have increasingly ignored their pleas.

On a cloudy October afternoon, an approaching thunderstorm heightened the dangers for a white rubber boat spotted crowded with dozens of African migrants.

Seabird crew
Volunteers on board the Seabird are on constant watch for migrant boats (Renata Brito/AP)

On board the Seabird, its tactical co-ordinator Eike Bretschneider communicated by radio with the only vessel nearby.

The captain of the Nour 2 agreed to change course and check up on the flimsy boat. But after seeing the boat had a Libyan flag, the migrants refused its assistance, the captain reported back.

“They say they only have 20 litres of fuel left,” the captain told the Seabird. “They want to continue on their journey.”

The small boat’s destination was the Italian island of Lampedusa, where tourists sitting in outdoor cafes were oblivious to what was unfolding some 60 nautical miles south of them.

Mr Bretschneider, a 30-year-old social worker, made some quick calculations and concluded the migrants must have departed Libya about 20 hours previously and still had some 15 hours ahead of them before they reached Lampedusa – if their boat did not fall apart or capsize first.

Despite the risks, many migrants and refugees say they would rather die trying to cross to Europe than be returned to Libya where, upon disembarkation, they are placed in detention centres and often subjected to relentless abuse.

Migrant boat
A small boat filled with African migrants is spotted by the Seabird crew (Renata Brito/AP)

Mr Bretschneider sent the rubber boat’s coordinates to the air liaison officer sitting in Berlin, who then relayed the position – which was inside the Maltese search and rescue zone – to both Malta and Italy.

Unsurprisingly to them, they received no response – the activists have grown used to having their distress calls go unanswered.

Running low on fuel, the Seabird had to leave the scene.

“We can only hope the people will reach the shore or will get rescued by a European coastguard vessel,” Mr Bretschneider said as the plane began to head back to base.

For years, human rights groups and law experts have denounced that European countries are increasingly ignoring their international obligations to rescue migrants at sea.

Instead, they have outsourced rescues to the Libyan coastguard, which has a track record of reckless interceptions as well as ties to human traffickers and militias.

More than 49,000 migrants have reached Italian shores so far this year according to the Italian Ministry of Interior, nearly double the number who crossed in the same time period last year.

On board Seabird
A small migrant boat is spotted in the waters below Seabird (Renata Brito/AP)

Although it is illegal for European vessels to take rescued migrants back to Libya themselves, information shared by the EU’s surveillance drones and planes have allowed the Libyan coastguard to considerably increase its ability to stop migrants from reaching Europe.

So far this year, it has intercepted roughly half of those who have attempted to leave, returning more than 26,000 men, women and children to Libya.

Sea-Watch has relied on millions of pounds from individual donations over several years to expand its air monitoring capabilities.

It now has two small aircraft that, with a bird’s-eye view, can find boats in distress much faster than ships can.

But even when flying low, finding a tiny boat in the vast Mediterranean can strain the most experienced eyes.

The three to four-person crew of volunteers reports every little dot on the horizon that could potentially be people in distress.

“Target at 10 o’clock,” the Seabird’s photographer sitting in the back alerted on a recent flight.

Eike Bretschneider
Eike Bretschneider exits the Seabird after flying for nearly six hours over the Med (Renata Brito/AP)

The pilot veered left to inspect it.

“Fishing boat, disregard,” Mr Bretschneider replied.

In rough seas, breaking waves can play tricks and for brief moments resemble wobbly boats in the distance.

Frequently, the “targets” turn out to be nothing at all, and the Seabird returns to land hours later without any new information.

Finding boats in distress is only the first challenge. Getting them rescued is just as difficult, if not harder.

With the absence of state rescue vessels and NGO ships getting increasingly blocked from leaving port, Sea-Watch often relies on the goodwill of merchant vessels navigating the area.

But many are reluctant to get involved after several commercial ships found themselves stuck at sea for days as they waited for Italy or Malta to grant permission to disembark rescued migrants. Others have taken them back to Libya in violation of maritime and refugee conventions.

Migrants rescued
Migrants sit on the deck of the Italian supply vessel Asso Ventinove after they were rescued from an unseaworthy boat drifting north of Libya (Renata Brito/AP)

This week, a court in Naples convicted the captain of an Italian commercial ship for returning 101 migrants to Libya in 2018.

Without any state authority, the Seabird can only remind captains of their duty to rescue persons in distress.

In this way, Mr Bretschneider recently got an Italian supply vessel to save 65 people from a drifting migrant boat, just moments before the Libyan coastguard arrived.

On another mission a few days later, the Seabird returned from its flight without knowing what would happen to the people they had seen on a white rubber boat.

Mr Bretschneider checked his phone at dinner that night, hoping for good news. On the other side of the Mediterranean, 17 bodies had washed up in western Libya, apparently from a different boat.

The next day the Seabird took off to look for the white rubber boat again, in vain. On their way back, the crew got a message from land.

The white rubber boat had reached waters near Lampedusa and was picked up by the Italian coastguard. The people had made it.

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