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This is the front line of the REAL asylum seeker emergency.

Reporter Sophie McNeill with Sergent Major Francesco Cuanzo

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.

The San Giusto coming into port in Taranto Puglia with 1,700 ‘migranti’ on board

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.”

Syrian father and son after being taken aboard by Italian Navy.

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.

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All over the ship, preparations intensify as the crew prepare for the imminent arrival of hundreds of people. It’s extremely hot, but nonetheless we’re told that we’ll have to wear biological suits, just like the crew, due to the risk of disease – including Ebola.

Suddenly the weather takes a turn for the worse. Rough seas can be deadly for the unseaworthy boats that the people smugglers use and intelligence on the ground tells the Italians that nobody will risk the journey in such conditions. For four days we sit, bobbing up and down in the rough sea … let’s just say I gain my sea legs after an episode of pretty intense sickness.

This newborn and her mum were among 230 Syrians taken onboard the San Giusto.

As the Italians predict, as soon as the waves calm, the rescue operation is on. We jump on board alongside the sailors and marines as they go out to rescue an inflatable dinghy packed full of young African men that’s been adrift with no navigational tools for two days. So far this year 3,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to make it to Europe – the joy and relief on the faces of these young men is clear as they realise they are among the lucky ones who’ve made it.

Just a few hours later, there’s another call – this time hundreds have been plucked from a boat by a passing Norwegian merchant ship and we have to pick them up in the middle of the night. Dave Martin, our Foreign Correspondent cameraman jumps onto the crowded deck of the Norwegian vessel and huddled in the dark are hundreds of scared and anxious Syrians – men, women and children

The look on the faces of the Syrian children as they were brought on board the Italian ship is something that will stay with me forever. I kept thinking of my own two little boys, safely at home in Sydney. How unfair the world is that one three year old is preoccupied with Spiderman and Lego, while the other has just experienced a terrifying journey after fleeing a horrific civil war at home.

In just over 40 hours, 800 people are rescued by the San Giusto and taken to Italy. Operation Mare Nostrum is not without its critics or problems – it’s causing an enormous strain for Italian welfare services and it’s costing the country millions of dollars every month. Plus the rest of Europe is mightily annoyed at the number of ‘migranti’ that skip over the Italian border and end up in their welfare lines.

But for the 140,000 people rescued so far this year, it’s given them a second chance at life. “I feel reborn again,” 22-year-old Ahmad from Aleppo tells me, grinning. “I was at a point when I saw death in front of me and even I accepted it and stopped fighting for life but thanks God I and my family stayed alive. People have to maintain hope in life because at any moment your life will be changed forever.”

To see more pictures from Sophie McNeill’s ‘Foreign Correspondent’ report, click through our gallery below:

 

You can see Sophie McNeill’s full report on Italy’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ Operation tonight on Foreign Correspondent at 8pm on ABC TV.

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