Summer, with its calmer weather, often brings an increase of people embarking on a dangerous journey crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe.
This year the number of refugees has increased by a staggering number with many fleeing the conflict in their home countries. The result has been a 60 percent increase in asylum seekers arriving in Italy since 2013.
With the influx of refugees risking the dangerous voyage, Italy began its naval operation “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) – a Latin reference to the Mediterranean – after more than 400 migrants from Eritrea and Syria perished in twin tragedies off Italian shores in October 2013.
In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.
One of the rescue ships, the San Giorgio, recently took part in an operation that rescued 1,171 one people from four overcrowded boats.
Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond.
|[UNHCR/A. D’Amato ]|
A green screen on a helicopter control panel tracks the first boat filled with people. More than 200 are rescued from the vessel, hungry and exhausted.
Their 18-hour voyage on the Mediterranean is fraught with danger and like many refugees before them, desperate men, women and children are lucky to have made it into Italian waters.
An Italian Navy rescue vessel, called the GIS, pulls up next to the first boat in order to transfer its desperate occupants. The GIS will then drive into the belly of the much larger San Giorgio, where people can safely disembark.
“Can my child have some milk?” asks one woman clutching a toddler with her arms.“His feeding bottle fell into the water.”
“I am from the town where the revolution started,” one woman says, referring to Dara’a in Syria.
“Now my city is gone.”
A young boy waits to be processed with his mother. He has just spent hours at sea with hundreds of other asylum seekers, risking his life on a tiny, overcrowded fishing boat.
Once a refugee ship is intercepted people aboard will receive health checks. Some refugees have identification documents while others do not.
Naval crew on board the San Giorgio process hundreds of asylum seekers who have just been rescued, as the GIS docks in the ship’s garage.
There are multitudes of people from different countries looking to find refuge in Europe.
“I don’t think I have come across people from the Central African Republic and Kashmir at the same time,” remarks one marine, jotting down names and nationalities.
A Syrian father clutches his one-year-old son, who suffers from respiratory problems, as they wait to visit the clinic on board.
All around them, men rest on the floor while the ship makes its way to Puglia.
Single men sleep in a partitioned section of the San Giorgio military ship. On this particular night, 820 of them squeeze into this overcrowded area. Families and single women also have their own separate sleeping areas.
One man, Mamadou, staying in the men’s section explains how he had fled from Mali and eventually found his way to Libya.
“I knew it is very dangerous in Libya, but I had heard about boats that take you to Italy,” he says.
“I had to take the chance as I had been fleeing for over a year.”
A young Syrian girl who has travelled with her school bag sleeps on her father’s arm. Together, they escaped upheaval at home and have journeyed hundreds of miles.
In the span of just six hours, the crew of the San Giorgio rescued 1,171 men, women and children from four boats. A sister ship, the Etna, brought another 1,023 people to safety. Many came empty-handed, others clutching a few treasured possessions. All were desperate to come aboard.
All of the refugees have reasons for risking the dangerous voyage at sea. Some fled armed conflicts, others escaped political and religious persecution. Some had been at risk of modern-day slavery, others were manipulated by criminal gangs.
All have travelled hundreds of miles and risked death at sea hoping to find refuge in Europe.