Just 20 kilometres from the Libyan coast in a two-engine aircraft, volunteer pilots fly low above the Mediterranean Sea, scanning for signs of life.
The rescuers, from French NGO Pilotes Volontaires, are searching the water between Sicily and Libya on the lookout for migrant boats in trouble. Their aim is to support search and rescue operations from the skies.
In the small cabin of the aircraft, it’s only about 40 degrees and for nearly six hours, the volunteers cling to binoculars, looking for the smallest spot in the waves.
Coordinating with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, the team of French pilots communicate the geographical coordinates of boats in danger.
For countless migrants, attempts to cross the Mediterranean from the Libyan coast end in failure.
“We’re alone with our small means, but we try to fly as often as possible to save these people. We cannot let them die at sea,” said Jose Benavente, a 52-year-old French pilot and co-founder of Pilotes Volontaires.
‘No route to safety’
This year alone, the French pilots have accumulated over 500 flight hours over the Mediterranean, joined by the twin-engine Seabird and the small Moonbird reconnaissance plane operated by the German NGO Sea Watch.
These small planes have been monitoring the positions of migrant boats in the Mediterranean since 2017 and alerting humanitarian NGOs if they spot anyone in trouble.
More than 20,000 men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The central Mediterranean route between Italy and Malta is not only the deadliest maritime migration route in the world, it’s also a battleground for the EU’s tougher stance on migration policy.
For three years, the EU has been funding the Libyan coast guard with tens of millions of euros to intercept boats and force those on them back to indefinite detention. Rights groups accuse the EU of supporting Libya’s anti-migrant policies, which are contributing to a cycle of “extreme abuse”.
Since the start of the year, nearly 15,000 men, women and children have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Libyan shores.
Along with searching for refugee boats, the pilots work to increase accountability.
The crew monitor whether commercial vessels and European coast guards are ignoring appeals for help and try to track forced returns to Libya by the Libyan coast guard.
“I have something at 240 degrees,” said the pilot Jose while repeating the coordinates.
They spot a blue wooden boat with at least three hundred people.
But the Ocean Viking, owned by SOS Méditerranée NGO, is one of the few migrant rescue vessels in the area.
A few days earlier, the NGO had brought hundreds on board, including two disabled people and a paralysed boy travelling with his wheelchair, other families with small children and pregnant women. Six rescues were operated by the SOS Mediterranée ship in four days.
Also on the horizon is the Libyan patrol boat 648 Ras Jadir, one of the Bigliani vessels donated by Italy to Tripoli to intercept migrants at sea. It’s the same boat that just days earlier was seen in a video attacking a migrant boat.
The Libyans are 37 nautical miles from the wooden boat at position 33 ° 30 ‘N, 012 ° 39’ E”, but they are heading toward Tripoli.
‘This job affects us’
It will take the Ocean Viking another three hours of navigation to reach 369 people on the blue wooden boat.
“It was dark. The sea and the sky were exactly the same colour,” said one of the rescuers, recounting the five-hour operation.
At dawn onboard the Ocean Viking there were 572 people, including 183 children. The migrants came from over 26 countries including Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan, Libya, and Syria. Onboard the French vessel was also an Egyptian man who left Zwara and was found with a serious gunshot wound on his foot.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, the volunteer pilots worry about whether they had missed anything and what would happen later in the week, when their aircraft would be out of commission for maintenance.
“This job really affects us,” Jose said. “If nobody is flying over the central Mediterranean, people keep disappearing.”