Malta's Coast Guard Rescues Migrants — And Feels The Strain

Malta's Coast Guard Rescues Migrants — And Feels The Strain

6:34pm Apr 26, 2015

This week, the bodies of 24 unidentified migrants were laid to rest in Malta, the European island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. They were among more than 800 people who lost their lives last weekend off the coast of Libya when their ship capsized as they were trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach a better life.

Lieutenant Keith Caruana of the Armed Forces of Malta spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about the situation in the Mediterranean — and the toll it has taken on rescuers after more than a decade of trying to save the lives of desperate people seeking safety.


Interview Highlights

How the situation has changed

We have experienced this phenomenon for the past 12 years. The first migrants started leaving Libyan shores during the time that there was still the government of [Moammar] Gadhafi in place. They used to come in small boats, mostly wooden boats, not bigger than a few feet.

Now we have boats of 500 at times, 700 at times, people on board.

What happens in a search-and-rescue mission

You first receive a call, and when we receive a call, it could be a Swedish man on his luxury yacht or it could be a migrant boat. We try and investigate that call. After that, we deploy our vessels to give further assistance. These migrants are mostly sending calls using their satellite phones to our search and rescue coordination center. We proceed accordingly.

On whether migrants or smugglers make the distress calls

At the time, we wouldn't know and it doesn't really make a difference [who is calling], because our aim is to save lives. The identification of the person calling and how he got that phone and who paid for that phone, that comes at a later stage and it is not exactly in the armed force's remit. But of course we try and restore any evidence that is on those boats and then we hand it over to the local police force that conducts the investigations.

On the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean

Can you imagine a boat that is five meters [15 feet] and you would have so many people crowded that sometimes they can't even sit properly? We have had dinghies with 300, 400 people on a dinghy. Sometimes they spend two days, three days, at sea. Most of them are sub-Saharan [African] and have never seen the sea before. All of sudden they're in middle of the sea and the fuel runs out, water runs out. They wouldn't know even basic survival aspects. For example, we have had cases of dehydration and they start drinking sea [water].

On the effects on rescuers

I have spoken to a lot of these men ... after journalists ask for interviews, and some of them would say, "Do I really have to speak about this? Because it's such a trauma." When you especially take up corpses and see children ... it is not pleasant at all. It takes a toll psychologically. It takes a toll on the administration that has to provide psychological assistance to these men.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And now to Malta, where this past week, the bodies of 24 unidentified migrants were laid to rest. They were among the more than 800 who drowned last weekend off the coast of Libya, trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hands of human smugglers. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 1,700 migrants have died trying to cross the sea this year alone. Lieutenant Keith Caruana is a spokesman for the Armed Forces of Malta, who patrol that part of the Mediterranean Sea. I asked him how long the military has been dealing with the crisis.

KEITH CARUANA: We have experienced this phenomenon in the past 12 years. So the first migrants started leaving the Libyan shores during the time that there was still the Libyan government of Gadhafi in place. They used to come in small boats - mostly wooden boats not bigger than a few feet. Now we have boats of 500 at times, 700 at times, with people on board.

RATH: Could you walk us through, with these types of boats that you're dealing with now, what happens in a search and rescue mission?

CARUANA: So you first receive a call. And when we receive a call, it could be a Swedish man in his luxury yacht, or it could be a migrant boat. We try and investigate that call. After that, we deploy our vessels to give further assistance. Now, these migrants are mostly sending calls using the satellite phones to our search and rescue coordination center. And then we proceed accordingly.

RATH: So when people are calling on the satellite phones, are these calls coming from the smugglers on the boat or the migrants on the boat?

CARUANA: Well, at this time, we wouldn't know, and it doesn't really make a difference because our aim's to save lives. The identification of the person calling and how he got that phone and who paid for that phone - that comes at a later stage, and it's not exactly within the armed forces' remit. But, of course, we try and restore any evidence that is on those boats, and then we hand over to the local police force to conduct the investigations.

RATH: And are most of the rescues done that way - by arrangement, by people making the calls, wanting the help?

CARUANA: Well, we have seen patterns, yes, that most of latest development in the past years has been through satellite phones.

RATH: I think people might not understand how dangerous it could be to cross the Mediterranean. What makes it so dangerous?

CARUANA: Yes, of course. Can you imagine a boat that is five meters, and you would have so many people crowded that they sometimes they can't even sit properly. We have had dinghies with 300, 400 people on a dinghy. Sometimes they spent two days, three days at sea. And some of these migrants - most of them are sub-Saharan, who have never seen the sea before, so all of a sudden, they're in the middle of the sea. And when the fuel runs out, water runs out, they wouldn't even know the basic survival aspects of living, you know - for example, we have had cases of dehydration. They start drinking sea. That is exactly what our seamen are facing nearly day in, day out now.

RATH: With so many people being lost, like you mention, how is the morale for the people on these rescue boats?

CARUANA: Well, I have spoken to a lot of these men who - I go after journalists ask us for interviews. And some of them would say, do I really have to speak about this because it's such a trauma. So when you especially take up corpses and see children that - especially a lot of Syrian children - who we have had the misfortune to assist and have seen several dead bodies, it is not pleasant at all, and it takes a toll. It takes a toll psychologically, and it takes a toll on the administration who has to provide psychological assistance to these men. So definitely a lot of bad things and ugly things, that's for sure.

RATH: Lieutenant Keith Caruana of the Armed Forces of Malta. Lieutenant, thanks very much.

CARUANA: Thanks a lot for inviting us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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