Retained firefighter Peter Barrat on board the Topaz responder

Refugees risking it all


Four days go by without any action. A storm raging over the Mediterranean has interrupted the smugglers’ schedule of boat launches. Then, on the fifth day, a deluge. A convoy of 28 tattered rubber boats, their seaworthiness questionable at best, loaded to sinking point with men, women and children, are inter­cepted by the Topaz Responder, whose crew includes retained firefighter Peter Barratt.

“It was like a war zone,” he recalls. “Just when I thought we were done, we’d pick up another vessel.” That day, 3,360 people were almost certainly spared a watery grave off the coast of Libya.

Just a couple of weeks earlier Peter, a trained commercial diver, had been at his home in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, surfing the business networking website Linkedin looking for offshore diving work.

“Ideally, I was after work on oil rigs, but since the worldwide slump in prices, jobs in those areas have been particularly scarce,” he says.

However, the search term “off-shore” brought up a recruitment advert for the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a Malta-based charity that provides search and rescue for people attempting to cross the Mediterranean – predominantly migrants fleeing their homelands hoping to make it to safety in Europe. MOAS was founded in 2013 after more than 400 people, including children, were drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The island was known as an idyllic holiday destination before it became a graveyard.


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Retained firefighter Peter Barratt on board the Topaz Responder

Peter’s skills as a professional firefighter and commercial diver were obviously highly sought after. Six days after making the application, he was in Malta.

The refugee crisis has rarely been out of the news over the past year. Hundreds of thousands of people from countries in the Middle East and from across sub-Saharan Africa have been displaced because of a complex series of wars, the collapse of govern­ments, famines and other disasters. People have been forced to undertake perilous and, in many cases, lethal journeys.

2,700 DEAD THIS YEAR

More than 2,700 people have died this year alone attempting to cross from northern Libya to Italy. It was a ship patrolling this route, known to refugees as the central Mediterranean route, where Peter was posted.

The smuggler boats would always be launched at about 2 or 3am. Depending on how much they paid, passengers might be given a life jacket or whistle. The boats would travel for a couple of hours before day break when drones flying overhead would spot them. In most cases the boats, having used up their supply of fuel, would be left drifting in the sea. In the rare case where they still had fuel, the driver would cut the engine and join the rest of the passengers, all of whom had been briefed to say they were stranded at sea after the driver had fallen overboard.

When a boat is first intercepted the rescuers must take control of the situation quickly. The passengers are already distressed and if they begin to panic the boat could capsize. The Topaz Responder deploys two smaller craft as near to the refugee boats as possible. Life jackets are handed to the passengers before groups of 30 are transported onto the craft. Known as Alan and Galip, the craft are named after two Syrian toddlers who drowned at sea last year. The photos of their lifeless bodies washed up on a Turkish beach provoked global outrage.

After several round trips all of the refugees are safely aboard the Topaz Responder. On one occasion Peter remembers coming across a woman who was nine months pregnant and in the middle of contractions.


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Moas was founded in 2013 after more than 400 people, including children, drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

TESTING FOR EVERYONE

The next leg of the journey, to refugee camps in either Sicily or Lampedusa, could be testing for all on board. Already suffering from seasickness, dehydration and a lack of food, the passengers often squabbled with each other – a natural result of fear and exhaustion.

The political questions surrounding the refugee crisis are hard to reconcile. If you do nothing thousands of people will end up drowning in the middle of the ocean. But by providing rescue services, you invariably drive up the demand for smugglers and more desperate people will agree to the drastic travel plans.

So what’s the answer? “That’s one for the politi­cians to decide on,” Peter says. “But as a firefighter, I am a humanitarian first and foremost. And just like when there is a fire, we rescue everyone we can, regardless of who they are. It’s the same principle here.”

THE DAY TOPAZ RESPONDER SAVED 3,000 LIVES, THE SMUGGLERS MADE OVER £1.5M

Peter gives an intriguing insight into some of the more light-hearted moments of his time on the frontline in a diary he kept. Whether it was the crew laughing after seeing him wash down the decks with a firefighting hose (you could tell he was a firefighter, they said) or how the Germans saved the day by delivering very much needed (and appreci­ated) bottles of beer to the ship after a challenging few days.

However, Peter says he could not do any of the worthwhile work without the support of his wife Denise, who followed the progress of his mission closely on Twitter and Facebook.

On the day where the crew of the Topaz Responder saved over 3,000 lives, smugglers were estimated to have made over £1.5m in trafficking fees. Luckily, there are people out there like Peter Barratt willing to risk it all, personally and financially, to help them.              

  • MOAS, the charitable organisation Peter volunteered for, relies on donations to continue its lifesaving work. To donate, visit www.moas.eu

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