‘It’s 2018 and deemed acceptable to treat human beings like cargo’

Irish nurse onboard rescue ship Aquarius says Ireland must call for solution to refugee resettlement

Migrants sit on the deck of the Italian navy ship Orione as the ship enters the port of Valencia. Photograph: Pau Barren/AFP/Getty Images

Migrants sit on the deck of the Italian navy ship Orione as the ship enters the port of Valencia. Photograph: Pau Barren/AFP/Getty Images

 

Ireland must raise its “humanitarian voice” and call for an urgent solution to European political dispute around asylum procedures and the resettlement of refugees, an Irish nurse aboard a search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean has said.

Aoife Ní Mhurchu from Cork was one of the medical staff on board the Médicines Sans Frontières (MSF) Aquarius search and rescue vessel which was forced to transport hundreds of people across the Mediterranean last week after the Italian government refused to let it dock.

The boat had carried out a rescue mission on Saturday June 9th in international waters off the Libyan coast following instructions from the Italian Maritime Co-ordination Centre. It subsequently received a transfer of 400 people from the Italian coastguard resulting in a total of 630 asylum seekers on board, including 10 children under the age of five and six pregnant women. The Aquarius was then forced to wait 24 hours in waters between Malta and Italy after both nations refused to let it dock.

“We knew we only had enough food left for one day and stressed the condition of the people on board to the authorities,” said Ms Ní Mhurchu who had been volunteering on board the ship since May. “We had several near drowning victims under medical observation and six pregnant women who had already been placed under enormous stress in Libya. People had to climb over each other to reach the toilet or water points. We had many people who were traumatised and had spent up to two years in captivity in Libya. They became very anxious and thought we would return them to Libya.”

MSF medics on Aquarius continue daily dressing changes for more than 20 patients who have suffered serious fuel burns. If not treated properly, these burns will go on to cause chronic pain, disfigurement, and horrific scars. Photograph: MSF
MSF medics on Aquarius continue daily dressing changes for more than 20 patients who have suffered serious fuel burns. If not treated properly, these burns will go on to cause chronic pain, disfigurement, and horrific scars. Photograph: MSF

Late on Sunday night the Aquarius received word that the Spanish government had offered to accept the migrants on board and the following morning 500 people were divided between two Italian ships which had arrived with extra supplies for the search and rescue vessel. The three boats then embarked on a five-day sailing across the Mediterranean.

Kidnapping and prostitution

“The weather conditions deteriorated rapidly and we weren’t sheltered by Sicily anymore,” Ní Mhurchu told The Irish Times. “There were waves of up to four metres and many of the rescued people suffered from sea sickness.” Ms Ní Mhurchu, the two other nurses, doctor and midwife on board the Aquarius were responsible for the care of the 106 people still on the ship.

These included 51 women, 45 men and 10 children who had come from Sudan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other west African nations.

Many of the Sudanese and Nigerian people on board spoke of being bought, sold and held in captivity while in Libya.

Young women recounted how they were captured and forced into prostitution. “These stories of being kidnapped may sound far-fetched to western readers but this is the reality for thousands of people trapped in Libya, we hear it time and time again.”

The three ships finally docked in the port of Valencia in south-eastern Spain on Sunday, more than a week after the initial rescue, and the 620 people disembarked following health checks. Ní Mhurchu, who already spent three months on board the ship earlier this year, says she feels real frustration at the European-wide response to the ongoing migrant crisis.

“The underlying issue behind the decision by Italy to close its port was the broken asylum system and the failure of EU states, including Ireland, to relocate asylum seekers across Europe. It’s 2018 and deemed acceptable to treat human beings like cargo being bundled from one ship to the other. Their wellbeing was never the priority.”