Just 20 kilometers off the Libyan coast in a twin-engine plane, volunteer pilots fly low over the Mediterranean Sea, looking for signs of life.
Rescuers, from the French NGO Pilotes Volontaires, are searching the water between Sicily and Libya for migrant boats in trouble. Its objective is to support search and rescue operations from the skies.
In the small cockpit of the aircraft, it’s only about 40 degrees and for almost six hours, volunteers cling to binoculars, searching for the smallest spot in the waves.
In coordination with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, the team of French pilots communicates the geographical coordinates of ships in distress.
For countless migrants, attempts to cross the Mediterranean from the Libyan coast end in failure.
“We are alone with our small means, but we try to fly as often as possible to save these people. We cannot let them die at sea,” said José Benavente, a 52-year-old French pilot and co-founder of Volunteer pilots.
‘There is no way to safety’
This year alone, French pilots have accumulated more than 500 flight hours over the Mediterranean, along with the twin-engine Seabird and the small Moonbird reconnaissance aircraft operated by the German NGO Sea Watch.
These small planes have been monitoring the positions of migrant boats in the Mediterranean since 2017 and alerting humanitarian NGOs if they detect someone in trouble.
More than 20,000 men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The central Mediterranean route between Italy and Malta is not only the deadliest maritime migration route in the world, it is also a battlefield for the EU’s toughest stance on migration policy.
For three years, the EU has been funding the Libyan coast guard with tens of millions of euros to intercept ships and force those on them to return to indefinite detention. Human rights groups accuse the EU of supporting Libya’s anti-immigrant policies, which are contributing to a cycle of “extreme abuse”.
Since the beginning of the year, the Libyan coast guard has intercepted nearly 15,000 men, women and children and returned them to Libyan shores.
In addition to searching for boats for refugees, the pilots work to increase accountability.
The crew monitors whether commercial ships and European coastguards are ignoring calls for help and trying to track forced returns to Libya by the Libyan coastguards.
“I have something at 240 degrees,” said pilot José while repeating the coordinates.
They see a blue wooden boat with at least three hundred people.
But the Ocean Viking, owned by the NGO SOS Méditerranée, is one of the few migrant rescue boats in the area.
A few days earlier, the NGO had taken up hundreds of people, including two disabled people and a paralyzed child who was traveling in his wheelchair, other families with young children and pregnant women. Six rescues were operated by the SOS Mediterranée ship in four days.
Also on the horizon is the Libyan patrol boat 648 Ras Jadir, one of the Bigliani vessels donated by Italy to Tripoli to intercept migrants at sea. It is the same boat that a few days before was seen in a video attacking a migrant boat.
The Libyans are 37 nautical miles from the wooden ship at position 33 ° 30 ‘N, 012 ° 39’ E “, but they are heading towards Tripoli.
‘This work affects us’
It will take the Ocean Viking another three hours of sailing to reach 369 people in the blue wooden boat.
“It was dark. The sea and the sky were exactly the same color,” said one of the rescuers, recounting the five-hour operation.
At dawn aboard the Ocean Viking there were 572 people, including 183 children. The migrants came from more than 26 countries, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan, Libya and Syria. On board the French ship there was also an Egyptian who left Zwara and was found with a serious gunshot wound to the foot.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, the volunteer pilots worry about whether they missed something and what would happen later in the week when their plane would be down for maintenance.
“This work really affects us,” José said. “If nobody flies over the central Mediterranean, people keep disappearing.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism