Meet the rescuers from across the
world racing to save refugees from a

“sea of blood”

On board the Ocean Viking in the Mediterranean - "The only thing you want to do is to keep going back to the search-and-rescue (SAR) zone, save as many people as you can and forget that [European politicians] are very, very bad," Jeremie, a member of search-and-rescue (SAR) staff on board the Ocean Viking, told Al Jazeera.

More than 1,000 people trying to reach Europe are feared to have drowned or are missing in the Mediterranean this year, according to the UN.

Ocean Viking, run jointly by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is one of several rescue vessels operating in the central Mediterranean, rescuing refugees and migrants on boats in distress.

Before it was forced to end its operations last year, the Aquarius search and rescue ship, which was also run by SOS Mediterranee and MSF, saved almost 30,000 people from drowning or being sent back to Libya.

Since it began its operations in August of this year, the Ocean Viking has managed to rescue more than 1,000 people.

But the rescuers face dangers themselves. Rescue ships have been accused of trafficking people into Europe. In 2017, some rescuers faced up to 20 years’ imprisonment in Italy after they were accused by officials of assisting traffickers and aiding illegal immigration. A rescue vessel was also seized in 2017.

Without intervention, however, the UN has warned “there will be a sea of blood”.

Al Jazeera spoke to some of those working on board to discover why they risk possible imprisonment and their lives to carry out these rescues.

Tanguy, France, deputy SAR coordinator

"I've been a volunteer firefighter for six years and was part of the French army's rescue unit for six years. I'm here because as a seaman, human and a rescuer, I assume it's my duty. Nobody gives a s*** about it. When I was a firefighter or rescue soldier, nobody questioned my mandate. Now, the fact that I'm still saving lives is questioned and even criminalised. It p***** me off. I'm a rescuer, nothing else. Not a political activist, just a f****** rescuer trying to save lives."

Zidane, Algeria, cultural mediator

"I'm here because I was in the same position 20 years ago, trying to reach Europe on a boat. I was at sea for three days before a fishing boat spotted us and alerted the coastguard. I could've died. I know what these people feel and why they leave their country. I won't advise anyone to make that journey. But I know, given the situation in their home countries, people will still risk it."

Tomoko, Italy, SAR team

"I've been at sea for many years. I know its beauties but also how it can be rough and dangerous - definitely not providing a safe passage to those who aren't equipped. It's not only a moral obligation as a seafarer [but] also as a human to make it possible for people to survive in a place where they would otherwise drown."

Istifanus, Nigeria, medic

"People are fleeing Libya, people are dying at sea. Some are trapped in the middle, either awaiting rescue or dying. I wanted to be part of this life-saving operation. It's a passion that one has to be able to save lives. It's not easy. You see people passing through hard times and lots of challenges. For me, being at sea is one of the most challenging environments but then you have to put yourself in the rescued people's shoes."

Matthijs, Belgium, deck leader

"I'm a seafarer and wanted to connect my maritime background with a humanitarian cause. Because I'm a seafarer, I don't want to see people dying at sea. It gives me a really good feeling to connect with those we rescue, knowing that we literally pulled them from the sea."

Mali, Norway, midwife

"It's really important to be here, there is a great need on the sea. I've worked mostly in conflict zones and unstable areas but I'm here because it's difficult and different from a normal field, for example, a hospital where things are more secure. I don't know what to expect but I'm here where people need me."

Theo, France, SAR team

"I've been very interested in rescues since I was a child. My uncle was a firefighter and I've been to rescue centres with him many times. For me, it's very difficult to see all these people leaving their homes. I was worried that everyone was just talking and talking and not doing anything. Then I decided to engage myself in something very pure and good. This is something huge, it's like a war at sea. It's scary and unbelievable. Sometimes I'm afraid and sad. But saving lives gives us the strength and motivation to do what we're doing."

Maggie, Germany, SAR team

"I was in Tunisia for five years, working as a carpenter and learning the language. There, I also taught German in refugee camps to 200 people who were due to be resettled in Germany. One thing I realised there was the lack of movement they had compared to me. I could come in and out as I liked. My friends couldn't leave the country. I felt the inequality and have, since then, worked with several NGOs in [the] air and on sea. The worst outcome of Europe closing its borders is people dying at sea."

Guillaume, France, deck crew

"I've been a sailor for two years but realised I needed more meaning to my job. I have often worked in tourism but have also worked with disabled people in the past, helping them carry out life as normal. This job gives me the option to help on the sea. I love the sea and I have been a rescuer on land."

Jeremie, France, SAR team

"After finishing my PhD in Maths, I realised there was something missing in my life in terms of fulfilment. I didn't want to change the world but just wanted to make it spin a little better and help people at the same time. On board, there is no place for fear and emotions. Maybe a little bit of stress afterwards. But when you put your gear on, that's it. You're ready to go and save lives."

Leo, UK, deck team

"As a seafarer, I really believe in the law of the sea. If there is a disaster at sea, everyone should be rescued and I think it needs to apply to everyone. I was working in the sea-tourism sector before I looked around to see if there was something I could do to help. Here, everyone is focused towards one specific goal and that goal is a lot more meaningful."

Dragos, Romania, SAR team

"We are rescuing people because they have a right to be rescued. If you find a horse or a cow in the water, you will rescue them because they are not supposed to be there. This is a really serious job and one of the most valuable things you could do at sea. I don't care who these people are and where they are coming from. Whoever is there, even if they have the opposite views to life than me, will be rescued."

Trygve, Norway, humanitarian affairs officer

"I find it very humbling to be the person that the rescued people can talk to when they come on board. It's a privilege to hear those stories, especially at a time when their life is in a limbo and they've gone through a fairly traumatic experience. Even though I'm not part of the actual rescue, it gives me meaning to see the impact of what I do on those people there and then."

Juan Pablo, Argentina, medic

"There is a huge need here on the sea for this kind of work. Otherwise many people can die. It's hard to be here, not because of the living conditions and the weather but because all the people we rescue bring a terrible story of their past and we need to be able to support them and treat them with the dignity they deserve as humans."

Tim, USA, nurse

"People on a rubber boat in the central Mediterranean is a neglected population in distress. For me, it's really rewarding to be dealing with these people and helping to restore their human dignity. Their time spent here is a brief interlude of safety and comfort and you can see their anxiety wash away as they get onboard."

*Surnames have been withheld to protect identities


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