Christmas on the Mediterranean – a month on a migrant rescue ship

With a death toll of over 1,200 so far this year, this is the world’s deadliest migration route

Palermo, Italy

At the end of a long dock, past large container ships, cranes and warehouses, and framed by the twinkling lights of Palermo across the shore, the Alan Kurdi buzzes with energy.

It’s smaller than I expected, a 70-year-old former fishing vessel run by German charity Sea-Eye that’s saved hundreds of lives. Its crew are cleaning, restocking and drilling, making sure everything is ready for the ship’s next mission. I’ll be on board for it.

We’re expecting to be at sea for anything up to a month, and constant wrangling between European states means we have no idea which country we will finish up in. The goal is to save lives.

At least 1,246 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year and the route across the sea from Libya – the area where the Alan Kurdi will be patrolling – is the deadliest migration route in the world. Since 2014, more than 19,000 people have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean.


The Alan Kurdi is named after the Syrian child who drowned in 2015 as his family tried to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. A photograph of the boy – lying on the sand on his stomach, his feet folded together and arms curling by his sides – was published on front pages across the world, drawing attention, ire and anguish as it drove the human cost for refugees home for those more fortunate.

As more than 1 million refugees and migrants crossed into Europe from the Middle East and Africa in 2015, charities and NGOs began to fundraise to send ships to the Mediterranean to carry out rescues. The Alan Kurdi is one of the few NGO and charity ships still doing these missions. On its last journey, it rescued 84 people, including children, newborns and a pregnant woman, and brought them to safety.

On board, I’m given more information about how the ship will be operated. There will be two crews working in tandem: one comprised of professional sailors and another of volunteers.

From brief introductory meetings it's clear this is a motley but motivated group. The professional, full-time paid staff, who are in charge of sailing the ship, come from countries including Spain, Ghana, and Germany.

Working alongside them are volunteers who have paid for their own flights to be here. The cook is a retired environmental chemistry lecturer in his 70s. Nurse Matthias Wiedenlübbert usually drives a coach in Germany (though he has his nursing licence), and will be working in the clinic on board.

From today, we'll be living on the ship for training, though it won't depart the port until early next week. After leaving Sicily, it will take us two days to sail to the search-and-rescue zone, closer to the Libyan coast, where we will wait until required to carry out a rescue. Each crew member has been supplied with a 91-page instruction manual, which includes the advice: "Use your free time: sleep and rest whenever possible. Operations can occur at any time and without warning – you need your energy."

Boat’s amenities

The boat is compact but there are amenities: electricity, wifi, a washing machine and a shower. Some of the 18 professional crew and volunteers will sleep in bunk beds and some get their own cabins. There is also an engineers’ room; toilets; a room full of rescue gear, including hard helmets and protected shoes, and another room full of rice, beans and bread for the “guests”.

“We call them the guests, the people that we save, because it’s nicer for them,” Herman, the ship’s chief officer, tells me during a tour. He also points out the life vests – they carry more than 900 on board, to be prepared for any situation.

However, there is too little space for people who are rescued to be comfortable. Refugees and migrants – “the guests” – sleep on the deck, often in the rain, waiting for a European country to agree to take them in, which can take days or weeks of negotiations.

Having to carry out rescues is not a certainty on a mission, Herman adds. Once last year the boat went out for four weeks without rescuing anyone. There needs to be relatively good weather, usually including wind from the south and waves that are lower than 1m, he explains. “Even the smugglers, who don’t care about the lives of the people they’re sending out, consider the weather.”

Chief engineer Simon Trebesius is a green-haired 34-year-old from Hamburg on his fifth mission with the Alan Kurdi. He worked on cruise ships before, but finds this much more rewarding.

“With my education I can contribute in a way so that less people die,” he says. “So many people die every year and we can do something about it.”

Cruise ships are certainly easier to tolerate mentally though, and Trebesius pauses when I ask if he will continue doing this job indefinitely. “As long as I feel comfortable with doing it I’ll be doing it, but you never know; maybe I’ll be seeing things that I won’t be able to process, I’ll have to stop.”

Trebesius says Europeans have a hard time appreciating the scale of the crisis in the Mediterranean. “I didn’t understand it myself until I came here.”

I ask how he feels about being on board the vessel for the holidays: we will all be on the ship for Christmas, and likely for New Year too.

“If I wouldn’t be here I would be with my family and my friends; I definitely will miss them but that’s something you have to think about before you come here,” Trebesius says thoughtfully.

Below deck in the mess, a semicircular room where crew eat and relax, Johanna Pohl, the endlessly busy and slightly harried ship and crew manager, looks up amid a long list of tasks to explain why Sea-Eye's work is important.

“Some days ago we celebrated the [anniversary of the] Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I think I speak for the whole NGO when I say the right to life is the highest right that we wish to protect and to fight for,” the 37-year-old says.


In the Mediterranean these days, saving lives is more complicated than just rescuing people. Since 2017, the EU has been spending tens of millions of euro on the Libyan coast guard, encouraging them to intercept boats filled with refugees and migrants and return those on board to Libya, effectively circumventing international law, which says the North African country is not a safe port.

Tens of thousands of people have by now been brought back to government-associated detention centres in Libya and held in conditions where torture, rape, violence and extortion are common. Former UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called this situation, and the level of suffering it leads to, an “outrage to the conscience of humanity”.

My introduction to reporting on abuses in Libya was unexpected. In August 2018 I received a Facebook message from a refugee in a detention centre in Tripoli. His brother had found my contact details online, and he was using a hidden phone to beg for help.

Since then, I’ve been in daily contact with refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centres, who send evidence of abuse they’re suffering. An initial few messages turned into dozens, and then hundreds, of refugees contacting me. They were desperate for Europeans to know their stories.

Most of those I speak to have fled wars or dictatorships and have easily-proven asylum claims. They say they had no choice but to try to reach Europe, after being abused and exploited in every country they passed through on the way. They have generally spent years between smugglers – who torture them to raise the ransoms their families must pay – and detention centres. They have often tried to cross the Mediterranean multiple times.

The chance of legal evacuation to somewhere safe is very small; the UN Refugee Agency says not enough European countries are offering resettlement spaces. This is why the refugees risk their lives instead, crammed into flimsy rubber or wooden boats amid sometimes towering waves.

In March, the EU pulled its naval assets out of the Mediterranean. Its ships had previously been patrolling as part of Operation Sophia, a mission meant to disrupt the work of smugglers. Now European countries use aerial surveillance instead to tell the Libyan coast guard where to carry out interceptions.

This has led to increased danger for the charity rescue ships. Two missions ago, a boat of people who appeared to be members of the Libyan coast guard shot into the water beside the Alan Kurdi while it was trying to conduct a rescue. “The rescue scene was like a film,” says Wiedenlübbert, who was present while it happened. “Unbelievable.”

Criminal charges

Other rescue ships have been shot at directly, though a bigger risk is legal charges. Search-and-rescue operations have been increasingly criminalised by European countries in recent years, with charges brought against crew members and ships impounded.

In June, Carola Rackete, captain of another German rescue ship, the Sea-Watch 3, faced 10 years in prison after she was arrested bringing 40 refugees and migrants to Italy without permission. In August, Italy's then interior minister Matteo Salvini passed a law that could see rescue boat captains fined up to €1 million for docking. Though Salvini has since lost power, the risks remain.

Other politicians are taking a stand for rescue ships – which is the reason the Alan Kurdi is now in Sicily. Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, previously praised for taking on the mafia, has described Libya as an open-air “concentration camp” for migrants, funded by the European Union.

When the Alan Kurdi’s crew were looking for a place to dock after their last rescues, they appealed to him.

"Palermo will always be a safe haven for those fleeing from hunger, war and poverty and for those who work to defend and protect the right to life," the mayor responded, inviting the Alan Kurdi to dock there.

A week in Palermo meant another Alan Kurdi crew could assemble and prepare to go out to sea and save lives again.

“I’m a political man,” responds Wiedenlübbert, when I ask him why he’s giving up his Christmas to come on this mission. “For me borders are institutional racism. I don’t like borders, I think everybody has to have the possibility to be free.

“Us, white, with a European passport, we can do what we want, and they are not allowed to do what they want. [Look at] our European industrial system for the last some hundred years; there’s a reason for this situation now.”

Sally Hayden’s reports from the Mediterranean will appear in The Irish Times over the coming month