François-Xavier Daoudal, infirmier à MSF, travaille à bord de l’Aquarius

Mediterranean: the Aquarius Aquarium

As an MSF nurse, François-Xavier Daoudal returned at the end of June after spending three weeks on board the Aquarius. During his time on the ship, 629 people were rescued. However, immediately after the rescue operation, the Italian and Maltese authorities refused the ship permission to dock, triggering a huge political and media furor. The Aquarius was left stranded at sea for several days before being able to transfer some of the rescued migrants to two Italian navy ships. All passengers were finally disembarked in Spanish port Valencia. What can be drawn from such an experience? Read on to see what F-X had to say during an interview on the political implications, life on board the Aquarius and the issue of people smuggling. He also shared with us what the migrants themselves had to say.

Before our interview, you mentioned the atrocious condition of the boats used to transport migrants… 

Up until a few years ago, we’d see fishing boats. They were old, but they were intended for use at sea. Some did end up sinking under the weight of the people they were carrying. But you don’t see them anymore. Their cost has skyrocketed as demand has increased, and they’ve all gone. The people we pick up at sea are crammed into rubber boats, over a hundred to a boat. Rubber boats are poor quality, inflatable dinghies with 25 horsepower engines entirely inadequate for the weight of their passengers. Unseaworthy and leaking, they aren’t made for crossing the Mediterranean and so most sink. The further they go from the Libyan coastline, the greater the risk of a tragedy at sea. 

How are crossings in rubber boats organised? 

From what I gathered from passengers I met on the Aquarius, people smuggler “companies” supply the boats. One or several of their representatives board them and stay with the migrants for the first part of the crossing. They either pull a small boat they use to return to land when they’ve set the migrants on the right course or an accomplice comes to pick them up once they’re several nautical miles from the coast. They designate one of the passengers to take the helm, give him a compass and a satellite phone and tell him to call for help after a given number of hours at sea—the time it takes to leave Libyan territorial waters. Once the rescue operation is launched, the designated passenger moves away from the helm, throwing the phone overboard so as not to be mistaken for a people smuggler. 

How are international rescue operations organised? How are the zones for disembarking migrants rescued in the Mediterranean selected?

Concerning SAR Zones Zone de recherche et de sauvetage, the jumble of legislations that must be referred is a problem. The Libyans supposedly coordinate the search zone near the Libyan coast set out on numerous maps. However, until June 2018, Malta and Rome, not Tripoli, led the coordination due to lack of funding. A recent development was Italy’s financing of a coordination centre in Tripoli at the beginning of the summer. This is where the latest rescue operation that picked up 141 migrants in August is interesting. The Aquarius stayed in the Libyan SAR Zone,rescuing them without entering Libyan territorial waters. The ship’s captain did his job. He called the coordination centre he reports to in Tripoli to ask to which secure port he should head to disembark the migrants butthe Libyan MRCCMaritime Rescue Coordination Center - Centre de recherche et de sauvetage en merwas not able to direct Aquarius to a safe place. Yet again, it was Malta that took charge of the situation. I should point out here that a rescue operation begins when a ship is re-routed to go towards people in distress and ends when it lands them in a port where they’re not in danger. The port in Tripoli might have a coordination centre, but it’s still hard to get people to believe that it’s a “port of safety”—at least in light of the current geopolitical situation.

Let’s go back to June and your mission on the Aquarius. Could you start by describing the sequence of events? 

I boarded in Catane in Sicily during the evening of Friday, 8 June. We sailed through the night to the Libyan coast and, at around 2.00 on Saturday afternoon, we were in the middle of a “security exercise” when we received a call from the Italian MRCC giving us the position of a “target”. When we found out that the “target” was already taken care of, we changed course for two other boats 5 km apart. We reached the zone at about 9.30 in the evening and it was dusk by the time the rescue operation was launched. Rescue operations comply with rigorous and time-consuming procedures that include giving everyone European-standard lifejackets. It can take over an hour between the time the first dinghies set off to the rubber boatsand when people start being brought on board. Meanwhile, we see if anyone’s wounded and who’s the most vulnerable, as they take priority. In the case I’m talking about, the dinghies went back and forth, bringing a total of 230 people on board the Aquarius. For security reasons, the ship always maintains a distance of around 300 metres. We all had radios that crackled throughout the operation as it was up to us to ensure we were sufficiently attentive to information liable to impact what we were doing. My job was to treat the wounded because burns caused by a combination of seawater and petrol are relatively rare but typical in this type of intervention. 

At 1.30 in the morning—the operation had only just finished—the Italian navy and the MRCCcontacted us toask us to take 400 people they’d picked up in the same zone and head north. Requests to take passengers are not uncommon as this enables other rescue vessels to stay in the zone. It took until 4.00 in the morning to transfer all the migrants to the Aquarius. Given how many they were, we even opened the bridge to them. At dawn, after everyone had boarded, been given clothes and were settled in around the ship, we set off north. Shortly after, we were informed that Malta was refusing us entry to its port and, midway between Catane and Malta, the MRCCtold us nobody wanted us. So, the Italians had asked us to take on board 400 people they’d rescued and then refused to allow us to disembark our 629 passengers. They were exploiting a situation they themselves had contributed to creating to serve their own political agenda. Three days later, when we were given permission to land the refugees in Spanish port Valencia, the two Italian navy vessels that had sent us their 400 passengers boarded 500 more migrants and then escorted the Aquarius to Valencia. It was preposterous.

A form of manipulation…

Obviously the huge number of people taken on board the Aquarius explains why Italy’s refusal to let them disembark generated so much media attention. 629 people on one boat? There’s a number people can relate to. What I saw was that this was the moment Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini chose to put in an appearance and make himself known—just as the French president was looking the other way. As for the Aquarius, we spent two days hanging around out at sea. We kept up with events thanks to several journalists (El Pais, Eurnonews and RTE) who were on board with us. They immediately grasped the importance of this denial of access. They worked like crazy, clogging up access to the Internet, to report what was happening and send pictures. Not only did they pass on information, they also helped with the daily chores. They showed no inappropriate attitude of neutrality [AM2] at a time when people were in need of help and all of us were—no pun intended—in the same boat. They were also invaluable when, for example, SOS and MSF were accused of playing into the hands of the people smugglers because our geographical positions and everything we do is easy to verify and make public. 

Concerning people smugglers and regular charges against SOS and MSF, Jean-Hervé Bradol recently wrote an op-ed in French newspaper Le Monde in which, in no uncertain terms, he puts the ball firmly back in the camp of countries accused of being the real people smugglers, as given the scale of the problem, none of this would be possible without their collaboration…

People smuggling is big business in Libya. Migrants from Africa or the Middle East are mainly hired to do jobs in the construction industry by people who, in the best-case scenario, pay them. But when they don’t, they commit to giving them access to a trafficking network and a passage to Europe. As all this has requires discretion and supervision, employers rely on detention centres, which people who work in the day don’t leave at night. The aim is to have access to a pool of cheap, controlled labour; which means being able to release the pressure by “freeing” migrants from time to time so the others continue to remain hopeful of a less grim future. While some passengers on the Aquarius told us that they’d met people they’d worked with on building sites, they didn’t know most of the people on the boats they shared. So there’s no doubt that there’s a vast network of people recruiting those seeking to migrate and organising their crossings. Getting 130 people from diverse backgrounds and places together on a beach, at night, with nobody knowing, requires a lot of effort. It’s estimated that one boat can earn €100,000 to 200,000 for one crossing. Manna from heaven. How many palms must be greased in Libya and other places for everything to run smoothly? With all the radars and sophisticated techniques around today, you’d think it would be simple to locate boats once they leave the coast—well, if that was what was wanted. I believe none of this can be achieved without at the very least the authorities’ tacit approval. 

To a certain extent, a “business” rationale is also being played out in international waters. Maritime law states that a sailor who identifies a boat in distress must report it to the coordination centre it’s closest to. The centre then calls on the closest vessel, usually the one to arrive quickest. Diverting petrol tankers and container ships costs shipping and insurance companies substantial sums of money. Equally dissuasive is that rescuing a hundred or so people requires skill. Seen from this angle, it’s easier to understand why the Italian navy is deployed in Libya’s SAR Zone. Beyond the political instrumentalisation and people trafficking that the Aquarius drew attention to and which Jean-Hervé Bradol addresses in his article, Italian navy patrol boats are responding to the vital as well as the commercial interests of the shipping companies it seeks to defend. 

Beyond the specific case of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya, what is interesting in Bradol’s article is the image we have of the people smuggler working in isolation, a kind of cross-border self-employed artisan… No! The logistics required for the crossings entails coordination far more reliant on a meticulous and professional organisation than any local entrepreneur. The number of intermediaries who must be paid to manage the departure of those seeking to migrate and secure at least a minimum of safeguards justifies the cost extracted from them. And there’s no doubt that some people smugglers are also coastguard or customs officials who, leveraging their relations with local mafias, and according to what their superiors consider their own interests, intercept, negotiate, “escort”, or even facilitate this migration. What other explanation can there be for the claims of taking action against the people smugglers for so many years proving so ineffective?

Let’s go back to the Aquarius and the voyage. Once they boarded, how did the 629 people react? How did you handle the situation?

We tried as best we could to manage with so many people on the bridge. We complied with particularly rigid procedures—never leaving them on their own, comforting the most frail, ensuring nobody fell overboard, checking they were ok, cleaning and dealing with waste, etc. At night we worked in shifts, which was necessary because the overcrowding created tensions that occasionally spiralled into “security incidents”. At those moments, it was noticeable how 15 or so of us would spontaneously get together and face them as a group to calm things down—a sign of that we were somewhat on edge. 

There were two other aspects that struck me. The first was the level of stress the passengers showed at the very idea of having to go back to Libya. It terrified them. Those who’d spent time in the country told us they’d rather throw themselves overboard than be sent back, and even more so as they’d see it as an admission of failure. The second was the extreme level of dispossession of all our 629 passengers. They literally had nothing, just soaking rags on their backs they didn’t hesitate a second in dumping the minute they boarded. The fact that the migrants are in such a state of deprivation also explains their trepidation at the idea of going back to Libya where, penniless, they would yet again be exposed to exploitation. 

Is the Aquarius fit for purpose?

The ship can sail safely with 500 people on board. Any more than that and new procedures have to be implemented to ensure its stability. We had clothing kits for everyone. When the migrants boarded the Aquarius, their clothes were in such a state that everyone undressed, ending up naked on the bridge. They then put on a sweatshirt, trousers, shoes, underpants and a white t-shirt, reminding me, somewhat ironically, of what prisoners wear. The aim was to ensure everyone was clean and dry. Modesty was a definite second but we did manage so that the women could change without being seen by the men. This was also the case of the shower sessions we offered during the voyage to Valencia. 

629 people affected our food autonomy. Getting food supplies was one of our conditions for accepting the 400 people transferred to the Aquarius by the Italian navy. The food was more survival ration than balanced meal. It was basically a kind of crumbly, oily, very calorific cake. The crumbs were a problem. When you’ve got 600 people leaving crumbs—well, it’s doesn’t take much to imagine the state of the bridge. It was revolting and slippery as an ice-rink. And that cake sticks to socks! The migrants didn’t have shoes and none were provided in the kits. 

What happened when you found out you were finally authorised to dock in Spain?

All the passengers stayed on the ship until the morning of 13 June. We’d heard the evening before that we were authorised to disembark them in Valencia, where we landed five days later. The Italian navy came back and transferred 500 passengers from the Aquarius to the Orione and Dattilo. In theory, it should have taken quite a while. We needed to explain the situation to people, present the various options and explain what was going to happen. We had to be careful not to split up couples and families and try to take personal affinities and communities into account. We also had to respect the wishes of those who either wanted to remain on board or leave the Aquarius. 

It was a difficult time. The discussions between SOS, MSF and the crew—who wanted to comply with the MRCC’s instructions and transfer the 500 people as quickly as possible—were particularly heated. Less vulnerable to pressure, our team insisted we take the time to respect people’s wishes before splitting them up between the three ships but the captain had to comply with the order he’d received to transfer the passengers. Meanwhile, the SOS teams somehow managed to stand up to the Italian navy who were intimidating us. In a boat crewed by sailors dressed like extra-terrestrials to protect themselves against supposed diseases, they surrounded the Aquarius in tight circles, provoking a sense of disquiet in the 629 people on board who had no idea what was going on. The tension was all the more acute as we’d already experienced the ship being flown over by a helicopter and visited by journalists.

In the end, we were given two hours to organise the transfer and 130 of the passengers, mostly families, women and the most vulnerable, remained on board the Aquarius. We set off, escorted by the Orione and the Dattilo, to Spain. The weather deteriorated. People were ill. We handed out survival bags, basically big orange refuse sacks, to our passengers to protect them from the cold. They were throwing up. We even saw a woman breastfeeding on one side and vomiting on the other. People wanting to get to the toilets held onto ropes strung up across the bridge. During the “inclement weather”, which lasted 48 hours, we continued to distribute food, etc. as best we could.

What reception did you get when you docked in Valencia?

It was impressive, with two or three rescue workers for each migrant. We attended a press conference in a room where over 500 journalists were waiting for us. That was when I really became aware of the interest generated by what had been happening. But there were moments when I felt a kind of distortion between the way the events were being represented and what we’d actually experienced. While we were on the Aquarius we did our jobs and didn’t get the measure of what was happening in the world outside that found it hard to picture what life on board had been like. I kept the press article portraying us as heroes but that says nothing about the infinitely more dangerous situations the migrants had lived through. We spent a couple of days in Valencia and a local newspaper vaunted everything the city was doing to host the migrants. The next day, the same paper published an article reporting that the first migrants to leave the reception centres had spent the day drinking coffee and visiting the city by taxi, suggesting they had the means to spend all day just hanging out. I sometimes had the impression it was a kind of race to the top in grandiloquence. For example, after we docked, someone declared that nobody who hadn’t been on the Aquarius during a storm with several meter-high waves could claim to be a sailor. Get real! We hadn’t crossed the frozen Arctic Ocean in the depths of winter! And ensuring the safety of 129 people during 48 hours of bad weatherwas nothing exceptional. If it had been, we would never have embarked on a voyage to Valencia with 629 passengers. A Spanish daily also published an article with photos and brief descriptions of all the crew. So we were aware of a tendency towards heroisation, but that occasionally came as a bit of a surprise in some of the press—the codes of which we don’t always fully understand. Compared to what the migrants had been through, it made us feel like frauds. But I don’t want to preach. We know there’s a kind of reciprocity of interest between the press and us. The fact that some press articles portray us as heroes leads some readers sensitive to this sort of representation to support the migrants’ cause. Is this something we should regret? In an ideal world perhaps, but then, the world isn’t an ideal place. 

What was your relationship with the migrants on the Aquarius? 

The same as with our patients on other missions—except for the fact it was difficult to raise the subject of what they’d been through. Obviously, most of them hadn’t heard of MSF, and they didn’t want to open up spontaneously and jeopardise their chances of being accepted into exile due to a misunderstanding or because they didn’t tick the right boxes. When we got to know their stories, we understood. Another difference came from the fact that we couldn’t get away from each other. After a while we became a kind of society in miniature, with everyone pulling together and helping—cleaning, participating in really thankless tasks and distributing whatever was needed. The passengers were really keen to get our email addresses or phone numbers, which we hesitated to give until we made friends with someone. There was this guy. He was 28 and he spoke really good English. He was with his wife who was pregnant. When he disembarked from the Aquarius he had “In Spain we trust” written across his t-shirt. He knew all about the power of communication. During a recent phone call he told me some of them had arrived in the north, near Lille, but that the majority are still in Valencia. He said special arrangements have been made for them, so they’re allowed to stay longer in the country than other asylum seekers. They’re trying to do everything they can to be able to stay in Europe. This friend would like to go back to studying economics, but his focus is on staying in Spain, so he knows he first has to find work. He’s already learning Spanish with lessons provided by the government. 

Are there any stories that particularly struck you ? 

Wherever they’re from, usually West Africa—Eritrea or South Sudan—, what struck me first is that the countries closest to theirs are the ones that are quick to show them the door and throw them out. Migrants often have to cross the desert, one of the worst parts of their journeys and which they have no inkling about beforehand. Literally everything they have gets stolen. They board pick-up trucks, 25 per vehicle, and are told to bring two small 5-litre bottles, which is wholly inadequate for the distance they’ll be covering. It beggars belief, but all say, “If you don’t drink your urine, you’re dead”. During the crossing, which takes 7 to 10 days, some people see corpses half-buried on the side of the road. Absolutely traumatising. And then it’s Libya and they want to get to the coast as quickly as possible to find a boat. But that’s only the beginning of their problems, with the industry of exploitation and its programme of torture awaiting them—three weeks without food, physical abuse, a phone call to relatives, blackmail, sold on within the construction industry network, etc. Like a well-oiled machine, it all ticks over nicely. I remember one man who repeated his story several times over during two hour-long dressing sessions. We usually tried to keep a certain distance from what people told us because we’re aware that their minds are set on leaving behind a hell called Libya. But his story was so detailed. By the time he got to the end, I was frozen to the spot and literally speechless. What he said shook me to the core. He talked of escapes, of days spent hiding out in the desert with no food, his shock at how like all the others in Libya he endured constant humiliation, having to lower his gaze in front of 12-year old, trigger-happy kids. This is a country where, since the fall of Gadhafi, drugs and alcohol have become more accessible, leading to an increase in excesses and lawlessness, forcing people to either keep a low profile or hide themselves away. I told the journalist on board with us. The man patiently repeated his story to her over a period of two hours with the same details—not necessarily using the same words or gestures—but it was the same story, his story. It all matched.

To cite this content :
Olivier Falhun, “Mediterranean: the Aquarius Aquarium”, 13 septembre 2018, URL :

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