Imagine being holed up on a ship in the Mediterranean with 47 young migrants, many escaping torture, slavery and other forms of abuse. Official boats with flashing blue lights surround you, blocking attempts to land in Syracuse on the southeast coast of Sicily after already being turned away from Lampedusa and Malta.
Then you and other crew members learn a right-wing Italian leader is keen to see you all face criminal charges. And, after 10 days, the toilets are starting to overflow.
Brendan Woodhouse, a firefighter from Nottinghamshire, doesn’t have to imagine the scene. He lived it in January this year, as a volunteer on board search and rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, the only humanitarian vessel in the Mediterranean when the migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast on 19 January.
This stretch of water has claimed most of the 280 migrant lives lost in the Mediterranean this year. Since 2013, according to the UN refugee Agency (UNHCR), 18,740 migrants are “dead or missing at sea”– in the Mediterranean.
The January stand-off made headlines, highlighting both the dangers migrants face and how official attitudes have hardened towards people desperate enough to risk drowning to start a new life in Europe. Attempts to make the Sea-Watch 3 rescuers criminally liable for encouraging illegal immigration didn’t succeed. But imagine the pressure.
On board the stranded ship, Brendan used the internet to contact FBU colleagues back home. FBU officials wrote to his MP, the fire and shadow fire ministers, who then raised it with the foreign minister. “It was good to see my union making waves in the Mediterranean on my behalf,’’ Brendan says.
On 31 January, Sea-Watch 3 was allowed to land in Catania, with a promise the migrants would be dispersed to other European countries. Progress on this is slow.
Brendan’s involvement in migrant rescue began in 2015 - after the body of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach in early September. He started ‘taking blankets and things’ to the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. But sea rescue beckoned. As firefighter and army medical reservist – he’d served in Afghanistan the year before - Brendan felt he had the necessary skills to help..
By December he was helping crew the Lighthouse Relief rescue team at Korakas on the treacherous north-eastern coast of the Greek island of Lesbos.
On look-out watch early on 23 December, Brendan saw a dingy hit the rocks and capsize, he woke the team and they sped out. As the chaos unfolded, he saw a baby floating face down amid debris, pulled her onto his chest and swam backwards to the shore, giving her life-saving rescue breaths as soon as his feet touched the ground. On the second breath, the baby girl ‘coughed up sea froth’ then started to cry. Five–month-old Sewin from Syria – one of 35 migrants rescued that morning, was soon reunited with her mother, who dropped to her knees in prayer.
Doro, from sub-Saharan Africa, was among those rescued on 19 January, on his third attempt to escape torture and beatings in Libya. He’d been sold into slavery, had cigarettes stubbed out on his chest, been stabbed in the stomach and lost an eye when a Kalashnikov was smashed into his face. He has horrendous scars to prove it. Brendan found Doro inspiring, “a gentle giant” full of compassion and humour despite all he’d been through. His story, as told to Brendan in the long hours waiting to land – has been shared 30,000 times on social media. It is, says Brendan, far from unique and shows why “no human should be returned to Libya”.
Achuil, now sixteen, the same age as Brendan’s son, acted as translator when he was rescued by Sea-Watch 3 on 22 December 2018. He also taught a baby to walk while on board. He left his war ravaged home in South Sudan when he was 10, worked in Egypt for a couple of years and, then made it across the border to Libya- unlike his friend who was blown up by a landmine.
It is these stories of courage and shared humanity Brendan is keen to tell at a time when governments in Europe are "putting up walls not building bridges". Crews on humanitarian rescue boats risk being criminalised and rescued migrants fear torture, forced labour and sexual violence if they are returned to Libya.
Brendan is both baffled and appalled by the lack of compassion for vulnerable people in desperate situations. As a frontline firefighter he is hardwired to save lives and rescue people. "Rescue first, ask questions later" is how it has to be – on blue watch at Highfields station back home in Notts or as a Sea-Watch 3 crew member. And when it comes to people on rickety rafts capsizing in the Mediterranean, the options are stark: “If we don’t rescue them, they’ll drown”.
Or as the UN high commissioner for refugees put it: “We cannot turn a blind eye to the high numbers of people dying on Europe’s doorstep”. Armed with his first-hand experience Brendan will be doing all he can to get the message out.