By SOPHIE MCNEILL.
I’m aboard an Italian navy rescue ship at night in the middle of the Mediterranean. It’s dark, our boat is bobbing up and down furiously and I’m trying to comfort a hysterical little Syrian toddler who is quite understandably freaked out by the whole situation.
For the past six months I’d been trying to get access to the Italian navy operations. All year they had been rescuing unprecedented numbers of people at sea who were risking all on unseaworthy boats to make a new life in Europe.
By the time we finally board in September 130,000 desperate people have been saved and brought to shore, many fleeing war and internal conflict in places like Eritrea and Syria, others seeking economic opportunities not available in their home countries.
Our invitation is to come aboard the San Giusto, the largest ship of the five Italian vessels that are involved in a major rescue operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’ – meaning ‘Our Sea.’ It’s an incredibly fluid process – we don’t know which port we’ll leave from, how long we’ll be gone, where in Italy we’ll pull back in.
It all depends on how many people are rescued and which part of the country has room to host the new arrivals. All we know is that the ship won’t return to land until it’s full of ‘migranti’ – the name the Italians give to the asylum seekers and economic migrants that they rescue.
Our instructions are to fly to Rome, go to the ‘Marina Militare’ Headquarters and await further orders. Once we arrive, we’re told the San Giusto is about to come into dock with a record number of ‘migranti’ – 1,700 have been rescued in just 3 days. We quickly head down to the port town of Taranto in the Puglia region of Southern Italy to greet the ship as it pulls in.
“If it wasn’t for the Italian helicopters we would have died!’ a jubilant Syrian father tells me as he waits in line after disembarking with hundreds of other Syrian and African ‘migranti. ’ I’m struck by how open and public it all is – there’s even a local clown giving each of the kids a lollipop as the families disembark.
We decide to visit one of the nearby processing centres to see how the Italians run that side of things. It also turns out to be radically different to the Australian approach.
As we arrive, we meet Mohammad, another Syrian. I was amazed to witness him and his relatives walking out of the facility, right in front of the local police. A few days earlier they were clinging to a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean unsure if they would live or die, now they’re trying to figure out how to catch the bus into town. ‘They are so friendly,” Mohammad says, referring to the Italians. “They gave us the freedom to stay with them or leave.”
Meanwhile, back at the dock, the San Giusto is being readied to head off again on another mission – this time with Foreign Correspondent on board. The 8,200 tonne San Giusto is an amphibious assault vessel normally tasked with moving heavy armoury and vehicles around – not thousands of desperate people.
Finally, after two days of sailing deep into the Mediterranean we enter the ‘Hot Zone’ – 80 nautical miles off the Libyan coast where the most calls for help come. Often the “migranti” don’t even try to make it to land – they sail just out of Libyan waters and contact the Italian navy on their satellite phones.