BC woman helps save over 200 Mediterranean asylum seekers

Amber Sheasgreen knows how to navigate rough waters.

The woman from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, is an experienced search and rescue worker. But a recent mission to the central Mediterranean was one of his most intense.

“For people to choose to do this transit or take this risk, I can’t even imagine what their life must be like,” said Sheasgreen, who has worked with the NGO Refugee Rescue leading a team. composed mainly of volunteers at the end of 2021. .

“It must be so brutal and horrible to take that risk.”

People are leaving a number of countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in hopes of reaching Europe, she said. . After facing war, abuse and persecution, some are so desperate they will pay smugglers to escape.

Humanitarian organizations say refugees arriving in Europe via the central Mediterranean route reached a record number in 2015. They also say that that same year European governments began to reduce the amount of assistance they offered to refugees fleeing by boat, which made the journey. more dangerous.

The refugees Sheasgreen was helping had only the clothes they were wearing, she said. Some didn’t even have shoes. None had a life jacket.

Sheasgreen, right, watches for threats as the crew approaches a vessel in distress. (rescue of refugees)

“Seeing it for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ A lot of emotions came up,” said Sheasgreen, 36.

Sheasgreen and his team approached four crowded, unseaworthy vessels, urging calm, first giving each a life jacket.

“They call you and beg you to come and help them because they want to leave.”

Sheasgreen hoisted a woman whose body was dangling in the water into the rescue vessel. She also helped a man with a dislocated shoulder who was in a lot of pain.

Sheasgreen said the rescues are physically and emotionally draining, but after two full days of relentless effort, 223 people were safe aboard the rescue vessel. Eight were children.

Refugee Rescue volunteers help migrants board a boat from a life raft in the Mediterranean Sea. (rescue of refugees)

NGOs, civilians respond to the call for help

Sheasgreen has volunteered with Refugee Rescue. The Ireland-based NGO formed in 2015 to respond to the growing number of people displaced by violence who were dying at sea.

“We are really trying to do what our governments are not doing, which is responding with urgency, professionalism and empathy to the people making these long and perilous journeys,” said Caoimhe Butterly, a member of Refugee Rescue.

Caoimhe Butterly, left, is a member of Refugee Rescue, an Ireland-based NGO that provides emergency aid to migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. (Submitted by Caoimhe Butterly)

Butterly said the lack of a coordinated international humanitarian response to the migrant crisis is evident in the number of people who have perished at sea. The organization estimates more than 22,000 people died or disappeared in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

The boats aren’t strong enough for the central Mediterranean Sea, making the trip extremely dangerous, Butterly said.

People board the boat already in medical distress or in shock after suffering traumatic experiences, Butterly said, making an already difficult situation even more complex.

“A lot of times people come on board not really sure they’re safe until it’s communicated to them very clearly, that they won’t be sent back to a place where many of them have been tortured and gender-based violence.”

Vincent Cochetel, special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said “no one should have to risk their life on these dangerous journeys”.

Vincent Cochetel is special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (Susan Hopper/UNHCR)

Cochetel said people need a reason to stay, so efforts must be made to ensure everyone has access to education, work and security in their home country.

“We have to work to try to improve people’s living conditions.”

Cochetel also said refugees who fled by boat, as well as other members of their diasporas living around the world, must warn others of the real risk.

“You have large communities of former refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and other African countries and it is important that these diasporas, these community groups, pass on truthful and accurate information about the danger of these journeys .”

In 2010, Saja Kharsa fled Syria to Turkey, where she paid a smuggler to take her and her four children to Greece.

Kharsa, who now resides in Finland, spoke to CBC Radio through a translator, her nephew, Ali Kharsa, who lives in Montreal.

“She didn’t want her son to join the army in Syria. She didn’t want her children to go through all this,” Kharsa said. “She says she made the right decision to leave.”

Saja said the boat was so full that people could barely breathe. The engine died in the middle of the sea. It was a miracle they managed to land, she said.

Cochetel said refugees are like everyone else.

Saja Kharsa fled Syria in 2010, paying a smuggler to take her and her four children to Greece. (Submitted by Doja Kharsa)

“They adopt risk-mitigation strategies and they think they’ll be lucky to pick the safe smuggler, the safe route, and nothing bad will happen to them.”

Traction to help

Sheasgreen said she felt the urge to help refugees overseas after spending a decade volunteering with search and rescue teams in British Columbia.

She grew up on a remote island 10 minutes by boat from the coastal town of Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia. With daily boat trips around town for school and work, Sheasgreen felt comfortable on the water from a young age.

Volunteers from all over the world are taking part in a rescue mission in the central Mediterranean. (rescue of refugees)

But she also witnessed the volatility of the ocean.

“When you live by the water, you see storms,” ​​she said. “There were days when we either didn’t go to school, or football, or dance or something like that, or maybe even my parents didn’t go to work because it was too ugly. .”

In high school, two separate boating accidents killed a handful of her classmates, a memory that still resonates with her 25 years later.

She said it was these tragic stories and her desire to give back to her community that got her interested in volunteering.

“Even the most experienced people can get in trouble,” she said.

Waiting for a safe harbor

Sheasgreen said he was lucky to have 223 people safely aboard the ship, despite the harsh conditions, but the voyage was far from over. The ship was to be granted a port of safety.

The two closest countries were Libya and Tunisia, but under maritime laws they are currently not considered safe places to port. The next closest location was Italy, but it took authorities days to respond to the ship’s request.

During the wait, some people needed medical attention. Italian officials were willing to cooperate to provide individuals with the care they needed, Sheasgreen said. Four patients have been medically evacuated, but safety port has still not been granted.

WATCH: Dozens of migrants pile into small boats hoping to be rescued and taken to Europe:

Rescue mission in the Mediterranean

Dozens of migrants embark in small boats in the hope of being rescued and taken to Europe. 1:56

Butterly said it was a common pattern.

“[European governments] try to make the disembarkation process as long or as jammed as possible,” Sheasgreen said.

The lack of political urgency to grant safe harbor to asylum seekers deters cargo ships, fishermen or anyone at sea from rescuing migrants, she said. It also prevents NGOs from disembarking and quickly getting back on the water to rescue more people.

During Sheasgreen’s mission, anticipating a long wait, the Refugee Rescue team began strategizing to ration food, water and medicine for an indefinite period. They also had to make sure that asylum seekers remained calm. Tensions that arise at sea can be difficult to resolve.

“We don’t want anyone jumping overboard. There may be threats of suicide if they don’t get what they want,” Sheasgreen said.

The first steps towards a new life

After several days off the coast of Sicily, Italian authorities finally granted safe harbor so the refugees could leave the ship.

“When we said goodbye, we had tears of joy, we laughed. We had people who I think were maybe still traumatized and indifferent,” Sheasgreen said. “It was definitely an emotional day.”

Despite the excitement of this moment and the chance for those on board to start their new lives, there was still uncertainty. The asylum process is difficult and bureaucratic.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Sheasgreen said.

“Even though this is the start of this brand new life, many of us weren’t sure whether to cry or laugh. It was definitely an emotional day, but I wish everyone goodbye, good wishes and a promise of a better future.”

About the producer

Leisha Grebinski is the host of CBC Radio Saskatoon Morning. His 15+ year career with the public broadcaster has included stops all over Western Canada. Leisha believes that the best journalism increases our empathy for each other. She believes hearing and sharing countless stories over the years has made her a better person.

This document was edited by Alison Cook and produced via the Mentoring program Doc.

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