This year alone, over 2,000 refugees have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from the coastline of North Africa to the safety of European shores. On Wednesday of this week, the Irish Naval Service rescued 367 men, women and children in a heartbreaking operation which is emblematic of the current maritime crisis.
On Wednesday morning, the Irish naval vessel, LE Niamh was patrolling north west of Tripoli, just off the Libyan coastline. At 8am Irish Time it was tasked by the Italian Marine Rescue Coordination Centre to assist a tiny fishing vessel which was reportedly loaded with up to 700 refugees.
The loading of large numbers of men, women and children into small and often unseaworthy craft by unscrupulous people traffickers is not unusual. Just one week earlier, the crew of the LE Niamh rescued 210 refugees who had been packed on to a barge-like craft in open waters 80km north west of Tripoli.
However, Wednesday's vessel was different. It was a fishing-type vessel, with a deckhouse – and a higher centre of gravity. Critically, there were hundreds of men, women and children crammed onto its open decks and clinging to its superstructure. It was highly unstable in the water. This was the desperate situation that confronted the commander and crew of the LE Niamh on Wednesday morning. The Irish Naval Service is unusual among the international Naval community in that it routinely conducts small craft operations in difficult waters all year round. For the past 50 years, the Irish Navy has honed its expertise in carrying out what are termed "resisted boardings" as part of fishery protection and drugs interdiction missions in Ireland's Atlantic waters.
In September of last year, the LE Niamh made the largest drugs seizure in the history of the state – €80 million worth of cocaine – aboard the vessel Makabayella, intercepted 200 miles off Mizen Head.
The LE Niamh itself, was designed in 2001 by Irish Naval officers with a view to maximising its operational performance with regard to manoeuvrability and accessibility for boarding parties. Ireland is regarded by international navies as a world leader in such delicate, close proximity operations.
Most naval forces concentrate on “over the horizon” force projection and are not skilled in traditional seamanship and small boat operations. Nothing however, could have prepared the officers and crew of the LE Niamh for Wednesday’s situation. As per standard operating procedure, the LE Niamh launched two powerful rigid inflatable boats or “Ribs” to assess the perilous state of the refugee vessel. In such situations, the crews of the Ribs are trained to approach the vessel from fore and aft in order to keep the panicking passengers “midships”. They do not approach from the sides of the craft – as to do so might cause a surge of refugees and a risk of capsizing.
As the Ribs made their assessment of the situation and began reassuring those on board that help was at hand, the hopelessly overloaded vessel suddenly listed and sank. The sinking took just over 30 seconds. In those 30 seconds, the Captain of the LE Niamh took a number of instant command decisions that saved hundreds of lives. Most of the refugees cannot swim. Their life expectancy in the water would be measured in seconds.
The crew of the Ribs immediately began throwing orange lifejackets into the water – encouraging the now frenzied and milling survivors to cling to them. Individuals, then groups clung to the lifejackets – and one another – as the Ribs rallied around trying to keep the floating human mass from dispersal into wider waters and almost certain death.
In the meantime, the commander of the LE Niamh managed to manoeuvre close in to the survivors where spare life-rafts were launched into the water. These 25-man inflatable life-rafts were specifically ordered and kept on board the LE Niamh following a “war-gaming” exercise, where the officers and crew envisaged such a nightmare scenario. Had this forward planning not taken place – there would have been no such extra inflatable lifeboats on board.
The refugees were assisted by the Rib crews onto the life rafts and in turn nudged and shepherded to scramble nets lowered from the LE Niamh. Those who could, climbed the nets. The injured, the traumatised and the children were physically lifted, carried and helped up the nets by Irish sailors.
Eventually, 367 men women and children were brought on board. Most of them were suffering from shock and severe cold. Many were unable to communicate and most had witnessed family members, siblings and children drowning in front of them.
The ordeal for both survivors and the crew of the LE Niamh was of profound physical and psychological proportions. There were no extra search and rescue assets – such as multiple Ribs, helicopters or winches available to the officers and men of the LE Niamh at the site of Wednesday’s catastrophe.
It is a miracle – perhaps not readily understood by a lay audience – that the Irish Navy managed to rescue so many individuals in such a short space of time. If the stricken vessel had been approached by a less experienced crew – the death toll would certainly have been much higher.
At a time of increasingly negative rhetoric across Europe in relation to such refugees – sometimes referred to as "swarms of migrants" – the Irish people can be justifiably proud of the performance of our Naval Service in the Mediterranean. Their actions are the very expression of humanity and the highest values of public service.
Tom Clonan is a security analyst