“Opinions Never Saved a Drowning Child”: On Board MSF's Mediterranean Migrant Rescue Boat

Ikram N'gadi

Dr. Simon Bryant is a Canadian physician who will serve as one of two doctors on board the MY Phoenix, a search-and-rescue boat that Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will launch this month in response to the growing humanitarian crisis involving migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Dr. Bryant talked recently about how the Phoenix will find ships in distress, what care his team will provide to those who are in need, and why nobody deserves to drown at sea. You can read more at Dr. Bryant's MSF blog.

Click here to learn more about MSF's partnership with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).

What will be your role on MSF’s rescue boat?

I'm one of two physicians who, along with one nurse, will comprise the MSF medical team on board the Phoenix. We physicians will be on the rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) that will carry us to the migrant-carrying vessels, where we will conduct initial rapid medical assessments. We will ensure that the sickest and most vulnerable are brought onto the Phoenix without delay, where we will provide any needed medical care. We will have an onboard clinic with advanced life-support and resuscitation equipment, and we'll do our utmost to stabilize critically ill persons and arrange for their transfer to hospitals onshore, while also providing necessary medical care to those less ill. The kinds of diagnoses reported for migrants in the Mediterranean have included extensive flame and chemical burns, near-drowning, dehydration, trauma including bullet wounds, and of course all the usual medical illnesses such as diabetes, heart attacks, asthma, and so on.

Why is MSF sending teams out on boats in the Mediterranean?

Quite simply, we are trying to minimize the suffering and deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean. In April, our team attended a candlelight vigil for the estimated 800 souls who perished in just one recent, terrible incident. At one point we looked around and estimated we could see about that many people walking slowly along the waterfront. Imagine us all drowned, somebody suggested, and we were silent. Nobody deserves to drown at sea.

Where will this operation be based, and how will it work?

We sail May 2 from Malta. The Phoenix is a true search-and-rescue vessel, equipped with two unmanned cam-copters to help locate migrant ships. They can operate up to 60 nautical miles from the Phoenix, with infrared and high-resolution cameras to identify boats in distress that would not be detectable simply with binoculars or radar. These persons in distress are then reported the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center (IMRCC). When the Phoenix approaches an overloaded, possibly sinking migrant vessel, the two rigid-hull inflatable rescue boats are launched, and the migrants are carefully transferred to the Phoenix after life-jackets are first issued to each one. After the migrants are brought aboard the Phoenix, they are taken to a safe port or transferred to another vessel, always according to the instructions of the IMRCC.

What is your experience on the water? Have you ever worked as a doctor on a boat before?

Over the past three years I've had the privilege and great pleasure of working on five sea voyages in the Antarctic and Arctic. But this work with MSF already brings me an entirely different satisfaction—even just getting onboard and setting up our clinic. The Mediterranean migrants need immediate assistance to avoid death by drowning, while others talk about fixing the causes for their optimistic despair.

What is your biggest concern going into this project?

I’m concerned that at some point our resources might be overwhelmed by the number of migrants needing rescue and medical care. The Phoenix is allowed a combined crew and MSF team of 20 people, but can legally have up to 400 on board. When we reach that point, we can still deploy four life rafts rated for another 80 persons, and lifebuoys for about another 40 in the water, but that's it. What would we do faced with a sinking vessel with 500 or more souls on board, exactly as occurred last week with 800 dead?

Even after time at sea in smaller boats, migrants can be significantly dehydrated and therefore seriously ill with kidney failure and complications from previous conditions such as diabetes. There is of course absolutely no medical screening before departure from Libya, and some migrants are quite sick, injured, or in advanced stages of pregnancy before embarking on their voyage. Finally, there is apparently an increasing number of unaccompanied minors in these migrant boats. It all adds up, leaving me wondering sometimes how it will all work out. But we will do everything we can.

Why do you think this is an important program for MSF to undertake?

The deaths of many hundreds of migrants already this year make it clear that this is a humanitarian crisis which cannot be ignored. MSF makes no distinction about the causes of human suffering; we just work to relieve it. These people are fleeing terrible situations in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and likely undertake the risky Mediterranean crossing fully aware of the risks. Last year, the Italian search-and-rescue program Mare Nostrum rescued over 150,000 migrants, but it was cancelled in November due to lack of support from other European countries. Without this kind of program, Mediterranean migrants are doomed. There are many opinions about whether rescue encourages other migrants to set sail, and whether Europe can absorb more people, but opinions never saved a drowning child—so MSF will, while the talk continues.

What difference do you think can be made by a project like this?

It’s estimated that MSF’s Mediterranean teams will be involved in the rescue and treatment of about 10,000 migrants over six months, about a quarter of whom will be less than 16 years of age. One in 20 will be less than five years old. Perhaps three migrant babies will be born on the Phoenix. Imagine the difference that rescue at sea, and receiving excellent medical and psychological care, will make to each of those people. But the real difference this project can make will be determined by what actions are taken in response, by politicians or people everywhere—and whether those actions will help change the oppressive situations that desperate migrants are only trying to escape.

"There are many opinions about whether rescue encourages other migrants to set sail, and whether Europe can absorb more people, but opinions never saved a drowning child—so MSF will, while the talk continues."

Simon Bryant
On 3 May, the MY Phoenix jointly operated by MSF and MOAS, rescued 369 people on the Mediterranean. The majority were Eritrean Asylum seekers and included many women and children.
Ikram N'gadi