Saving Lives at Sea
by Julia Imbriaco
July 31, 2019
Hannah Wallace Bowman is the Field Communications Manager for Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières onboard MV Ocean Viking.
Image via Hannah Wallace Bowman (above).
Who are you and what do you do? Why do you do it?
My name is Hannah and I am the Field Communications Manager for Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières onboard MV Ocean Viking. We are currently on our way to the Central Mediterranean where, alongside our partners SOS MEDITERRANEE, we are set to resume search and rescue operations off the coast of Libya. It is very difficult to predict what we will face over the coming weeks and months, but it feels like a great privilege to be a part of this mission.
The issue of migration is one very close to my heart, and something I believe to be one of the most confronting and urgent of our time. So, here is to fair winds and a turning of the political tide.
What is happening to migrants and asylum seekers at Europe's maritime borders?
The so-called threat posed by migrants, refugees or those seeking asylum is being leveraged to fuel a nationalistic and xenophobic approach to border management across Europe, whereby loss of life along maritime borders has become collateral damage at best – and a tactic of dissuasion at worst. While search and rescue is clearly not a long-term solution, it has become a necessary emergency response in the current context. Thanks to a lack of safe and legal routes for people seeking international protection, people are being faced with an impossible “choice”: they can either continue to suffer diabolical conditions in Libya, return to the conditions from which they were fleeing from in the first place, or risk drowning at sea: this is symptomatic of a system that has failed.
The relaunching of our SAR mission is therefore a bid not only to save lives, but to bear witness, and to advocate on behalf of those Europe has condemned.
Why are so many people dying at sea? Is this rate increasing? Decreasing?
The Central Mediterranean Sea crossing remains the world’s deadliest migration route. Despite less people attempting to make the journey, the likelihood of dying in the process of trying has actually risen. Meanwhile, European governments continue to criminalise and block NGO search and rescue vessels, supporting the Libyan Coastguard in intercepting and forcibly returning thousands of people trying to escape from Libya. And, sadly, the situation is only deteriorating.
Just last week saw the most horrific shipwreck of the year so far, whereby around 150 people were reported to have drowned in a single incident. 150 people.
These are not just numbers. These are living, breathing individuals, with hopes and dreams; these are children with favorite colours and parents with favourite songs; they were brothers and sisters; they are people who likely had friends and loved ones who were not on that fateful journey, for whom their loss will yield an unbearable grief.
What can we do from afar to help?
A key part of my role as the Communications Manager for MSF on this mission, is supporting the team in telling the story of what is really happening in the Central Mediterranean. The fact that people are drowning as they try to seek safety is an abomination, but that so many people remain ignorant or ambivalent to the level of institutionalized devastation at our borders is almost equally as catastrophic.
So please, as a first step, inform yourself as to the human cost of using the movement of people as a political bargaining chip; stay tuned for real-time updates from our SAR mission aboard the Ocean Viking - as well as information regarding our projects working with displaced people around the world - by following us on Twitter; and share what you learn with others: look for opportunities to speak out and challenge false narratives, supporting MSF in our call for governments to guarantee safe and legal routes for people to reach safety.