A drop in the ocean: how one plane is trying to save thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean

As migrants continue efforts to cross the perilous Mediterranean, a band of pilots is looking out for their safety from above

In a small plane called Moonbird, Manos Radisoglou scans the vast Mediterranean Sea for migrant boats in distress.

As one of a dozen volunteer pilots with the Swiss NGO Humanitarian Pilot’s Initiative (HPI), he conducts search and rescue aerial reconnaissance missions over the Mediterranean, attempting to spot migrant crafts, finding nearby ships to assist and reminding them of their obligation by international law to rescue boats in distress.

But EU member states' criminalisation of humanitarian work like his has complicated the rescues of hundreds of migrants at sea.

Most significantly, Italy has instituted up to one million euros (Dh4m) in fines for any vessel that brings migrants into Italian territorial waters and Malta has banned boats carrying refugees from docking at its ports.

These harsh measures have drastically reduced the number of search and rescue boats on the water, making it harder for Moonbird to do its job.

“Now, whenever we find a [migrant] boat, it might be that the next rescue ship is hours or even days away so it's hard to do anything,” said Mr Radisoglou, 31, from Germany.

“Because it has happened too many times where there wasn't any help or solution to drop off the people, we realise that fewer and fewer companies tend to really help and instead they take a detour around the area in order to not be near a distress case."

Mr Radisoglou acknowledged that in many cases, it is not malevolence that prevents ships from helping but rather the extreme external pressure from Italian and Maltese laws.

"[There have been] occasions where [merchant vessels] actually did a rescue and then the problem was that Italy didn't let the refugees disembark for a week.”

Week-long disruptions to merchant vessels journeys can be disastrous for the companies financially, and the merchant vessels are often ill-equipped to house and feed the migrants.

Search and rescue vessel captain Carola Rackete was even arrested for docking a Sea-Watch ship at an Italian port without authorisation.

In July 2019, Sea-Watch 3 picked up 53 migrants off the Libyan coast and began to head to Lampedusa, Italy, the nearest safe harbour. After 17 days in limbo, Rackete decided to dock the boat and was arrested by Italian authorities.

After widespread backlash, Rackete was released from house arrest but an investigation into her involvement in criminal activities related to undocumented migration continued. Ultimately, in January 2020, the highest court in Italy declared that she never should have been arrested in the first place.

Mr Radisoglou and other pilots at HPI have experienced legal backlash to their work as well.

“[Italy] wanted to prevent us from flying but through a lawyer, we got the right to fly again. What they now have said is you can do these flights but you are not allowed to do search and rescue over Italian territory.

“The absurd thing is according to international aviation law, as a pilot, I'm obligated to report to the authorities if I see something on the ground like even a car crash or a plane crash or a shipwreck.

“So I can choose between violating international aviation law and violating what Italy tells us to not do."

Driven away by war, oppression and human rights violations, asylum-seeking refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East travel to Libya where they embark on a harrowing boat journey to Italy.

Migrant boats, some carrying over 100 people, take three to five days to travel between the Libyan coast and landing points in EU states Greece and Italy. Travelling in harsh, unsafe conditions and overladen with desperate people, the crafts often become stranded.

“The rubber boats' motor is not built to travel for three days straight for 400km. They're made to just go fishing or complete a very small journey,” said Mr Radislogou, who has personally overseen the rescue of dozens of boats in the Mediterranean.

The boats often run out of fuel or face engine issues, leaving passengers stranded in the sun without drinking water or access to toilets for days. The inadequate vessels are at the mercy of the sea, leaving the migrants seasick at best or forced to swim for their lives without life vests if the boats start to deflate.

“When we find them, we try to make it clear that help is on the way, give them hope at least. Sometimes that hope is fulfilled and we can arrange for a rescue but sometimes we cannot do anything,” said Mr Radisoglou.

Instead of supporting search and rescue operations — the EU rejected a plan to step up search and rescue operations in October 2019 — the EU has poured almost one hundred million euros into the Libyan Coast Guard since 2017, which has intercepted and taken over 40,000 refugees and migrants back to Libya.

The EU has maintained that providing funding and training to the Libyan Coast Guard is an effective way to save lives since many search and rescue incidents take place in Libyan territorial waters.

An EU spokesperson told The National, "No boats are allowed to enter Libyan territorial waters without authorisation of the Libyan authorities. This is why we work with the Libyan Coast Guard to enhance their capacity to carry out search and rescue operations in their zone of responsibility, where most search and rescue incidents occur."

This strategy has been condemned by human rights groups like Amnesty International who say Libya’s status as an active war zone means many returned migrants disappear or are detained or trafficked.

The arrangement under which Italy supports the Libyan Coast Guard’s work intercepting boats and bringing them back to Libya was renewed for another three years in February.

“During the three years since the original deal was struck, at least 40,000 people, including thousands of children, have been intercepted at sea, returned to Libya and exposed to unimaginable suffering,” Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Europe, Marie Struthers, said.

Even when refugees and migrants are rescued and taken to a safe European port, their safety is not guaranteed.

“It's all considered illegal migration so every one of them is facing legal prosecution and only the ones who are considered to have a right to asylum [are allowed to stay],” said Mr Radisoglou.

“All the others are put into detention centres, into jails or are deported back to their home countries if they are able to find out what the home country is."

In the first five weeks of 2020, the UN Institute on Migration (IOM) reported that 7,168 migrants and refugees had entered Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, the “world’s deadliest” migrant crossing, according to the UN.

Even though the number of migrants has decreased in recent years after a 2015 peak in migration, the numbers are still overwhelming for those wishing to help. In 2019, 72,263 people entered Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, and over 1,000 migrants died while completing the precarious sea crossing, the IOM estimates.

In 2019, HPI conducted 65 mission flights totalling 350 hours of flight time. In January and February of this year, Moonbird was involved in 16 cases, contributing to the rescue of 542 passengers who were taken to a safe harbour.

HPI is determined to expand its work, and has recently purchased another plane with longer range, which means they can avoid costly refuelling trips.

Each flight mission costs 2500 euros (Dh9910) and are funded by the German Evangelical Church and private donors.

Mr Radisoglou devoted around 1000 hours to volunteering with HPI last year, taking time out of his role as an air-traffic controller in Frankfurt. For the last year, he has also served as Flight Operations Co-ordinator for the group.

“Moonbird really has become my passion and the thing I'm burning for,” said Mr Radisoglou.