While in the Mediterranean people continue to die at sea others are endeavouring to save lives and bring to justice alleged human traffickers. Last year, 154 thousand people have landed in Italy, about 24 thousand since the beginning of 2016. Maritime forces in the European sea – 5 ships and 7 planes and helicopters provided by 24 European countries – have saved, from 22 June 2015 to date, at least 13 thousand men, women and children and handed over 80 persons to prosecution offices of Catania and Syracuse for necessary assessments. The figures were provided by Admiral Andrea Gueglio, Commander of the Task Force of the Eunavfor mission Med-operation Sophia, the European mission set up on 20 April, two days after the sinking of a boat with 500/700 people somewhere between the Libyan coast and that of Sicily, whose corpses are currently being recovered. Italian aircraft carrier Cavour from which Admiral Gueglio directs all operations, left off from the Italian coast on June 26 and since then it stops in ports only a few days a month to make supplies of food and fuel. The vessel has a hospital on board therefore it remains as much as possible in the sea, to give prompt support in case of need. Rescue operations are complicated and are made more difficult by bad weather or adverse climatic conditions. There are frequent cases of hypothermia, which can be overcome through rapid medical intervention and the availability of dry clothing. For this reason Caritas Italy has committed to provide 1000 clothing and shoe kits in the coming months to be distributed to refugees in the relief and rescue operations at sea. The operation, called “Warm up”, is funded by Caritas Germany. It’s the beginning of a collaboration on a common front: that of life.
We followed your rescue operations at sea in the masterpiece documentary titled “Fuocammare” and other reportages. How do you operate on the ground?
These organizations mass together unimaginable numbers of men, women and children on rafts or barges. They manage to cram up to 120 people on a 15-meter dinghy. From each of them they receive a payment of over $ 1,000, then they abandon them on the vessels in the middle of the sea, in the dark, heading north, until the motor stops or runs out of gas. Fortunately, often a military vessel comes to rescue them. We are making every effort to locate these people. At the moment we are operating in international waters and so we use all military means to be able to locate and report them to Italian judicial authorities for appropriate evaluation. The film “Fuocammare” well describes our daily lives, 24 hours running. We must always be ready, efficient, we cannot afford mistakes because the lives of many people are at stake.
Rescue operations are very complex. Which precautionary measures do you adopt?
Indeed, travel conditions, as well as those of the barges, are extremely precarious. We have to be prepared, take every precaution to prevent situations that could represent a further risk for the migrants. We adopt specific approaching tactics, dialogue first of all. We have to reassure the people on the vessels, making it clear that we have come to save them. We distribute individual lifebuoys to ensure that everyone has a minimum condition of buoyancy. Then slowly we start transhipment operations on our rafts towards the military ship. All this takes a long time and requires nautical skills to operate at night and when the sea is rough, as often happens.
How many were the alleged people-smugglers and the people saved since June?
To date we have identified more than 80 people, who were referred to the prosecutors in Catania and Siracusa, who examine photos and listen to testimonies from migrants who were in the same boat. Prosecutors thus have the elements to make decisions.
To date we have saved almost 13 thousand people with direct physical interventions with the migrants on board of our ships.
But our planes, helicopters and radars have helped double the number of rescues carried out by other organizations and ships that are at sea.
One of the most tragic shipwrecks occurred on April 18, a year ago. Yesterday there was another tragic shipwreck in the Aegean Sea and it is feared that there are over 200 victims. How do you feel in the face of this news?
For us are it is an additional incentive to conduct our daily task with increasing attention, effort and commitment. Our activity is directly related to people’s lives. These tragedies encourage us even more to ensure that all operations are perfectly carried out.
How do you cope with such a strong and dramatic experience?
One of the best returns is to see the great intensity and generosity with which the crews of all the involved European Navies face this particular type of military operation that is not part of our formal training. They have been able to capitalize their military training to be efficient and prepared, and above all warm and welcoming when men, women and children arrive on board, restoring their strength, and helping them to spend the hours that separate them from Italy in the best possible way.
We all feel part of the same humanity and we’re all proud to be able to give our contribution.
What does Caritas’ contribution of shoes and clothing mean to you?
For us it means receiving crucial means being even more efficient in rescue operations of those risking their lives at sea. We often have to rescue people in the water. Having dry clothes that ensure a more comfortable journey to Italy in some cases makes the difference between life and death.
What can you tell us about Pope Francis’ visit to Lesvos?
Seeing the Pope close to the sea and to those who are at sea has filled me with joy. It’s a sign of attention – even though indirect, as we do not operate in the Aegean Sea – to our daily activity.
Now that the Balkan route has been closed, arrivals from North Africa are increasing. Do you expect the numbers to increase?
Every forecast must be verified on the basis of long-term statistical trends. However, it’s clear that we must expect an increase during periods of good weather. We have already registered a small increase compared to the same period last year, but this is also due to weather conditions. We will have to see what happens in the Spring-Summer months. Last month as many as 2 thousand left in only two days.