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'They're going to make that journey anyway - the question is can you sit back and watch people lose their lives?'

A look at the migrant crisis through the eyes of the Irish defence forces.

I’ve spent 27 years at various roles in the Defence Forces, and with something like this, you can do as much training as you want, but you don’t know what you’re dealing with until you’re on the scene.

Lieutenant Commander Ultan Finegan is proud of his crew, and what they achieved in the Mediterranean this summer.

The Óglaigh na hÉireann vessel and a team of 59 people left Cork harbour in May of this year to help the Italian coastguard save the lives of migrants attempting to cross the sea between Libya and Europe.

Appropriately called the LÉ Róisín – as ‘Róisín’ has been used as a poetic reference for Ireland – this would be the first of three Irish vessels deployed this year that would save over 7,000 lives between them.

Europe Libya Migrants Source: AP/Press Association Images

“We’ve directly rescued 1,200 people from all sorts of vessels, and we were fortunate, that we didn’t have too many deceased people,” says Finegan of the LÉ Róisín’s work.

Their job in the Mediterranean is to help the Italian coastguard respond to calls of boats overflowing with migrants and to bring them to Italy to be registered as asylum seekers.

“When we spot a vessel, we close up the ship, launch two ribs which approach from either side so they don’t all rush to one side. An officer confirms that they need assistance, and life jackets are handed out to everyone on board.

“There’s always a number of English speakers in every group, and we have them assist us with processing people as a sort of interpreter.”

People on board

Europe Migrants Source: Mstyslav Chernov/AP photos

When asked to name a few countries that the migrants are from, Finegan begins a long list that includes Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Africa, and Eritrea.

“They were all come from something they did not want to stay with. A lot of African countries are unsettled. To get to Libya, they had to make a treacherous journey from that Central African strip. It must really be worth it.”

The paramedics on board had to deal with a number of medical issues once people were on board, such as chemical burns from the engine of the vessel, sunburn, dehydration, and wounds from ashore.

One woman they rescued had a particularly bad wound:

“The rubber crafts have a lot of bolts to try to make it stable. You’re given a small area that’s yours, one spot and you can’t move much.

There was a woman who’s only spot was on one of those bolts. She had a really bad wound from these 4-5 inch bolts, and we treated her on board for it.

“Two other females were alive as we rescued their boat, but their bodies seemed to carry them until they were rescued – then their bodies just gave up. My guys and the paramedics tried to resuscitate them, but their bodies had carried them just far enough.”

Mare Nostrum

The crisis has been continuing since 2014, when the Italian government began Mare Nostrum – a military operation to pick up hundreds of migrants floating off their shores.

Finegan says that in the past year, there has been an increase in number of people attempting to cross, and can be seen in the rescue missions made by Ireland’s Defence Forces: “We did three times as much work this year compared to the same time last year.”

The increase of migrants into winter months is particularly significant: it means the people taking money to put these migrants on boats are taking more risks with other people’s lives.

Any weather coming from the north makes conditions more dangerous to launch a boat to sea.

A lot of people say that rescue missions like the LÉ Róisín’s are encouraging more people to make the perilous journey, which puts more lives at risk. Finegan doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“It’s a Catch 22, if you’re not there, you know they’re still going to make that crossing, and there’s going to be more losses.”

Withdrawing support doesn’t work, he says. He gives the example of the sinking of a fishing ship off the Libyan coast after the Italian’s campaign to rescue migrants had stopped in the spring of 2015. All 700 people on board drowned.

Outrage ensued, and the campaign in the Mediterranean started again.

Finegan watched the recovery of the vessel a couple of months ago – recently Italian Premier Matteo Renzi will propose to place the wreckage in front of the European Union’s institutions to draw attention on the migrants’ plight in the Mediterranean Sea.

“They’re going to attempt it anyway,” says Finegan. “The question is can you sit back and watch people make that journey knowing they’re going to lose their lives?

Italy Europe Migrants The wrecked fishing boat that capsized and sunk on 18 April 2015 off the coast of Libya. Source: Salvatore Cavalli

It’s been a couple of months since the crew of the LÉ Róisín were out at sea – how does he view the time they spent there now?

“I’m very proud of my crew, these people did the job they had set out to do, and did themselves proud. It was especially good for our younger members and helped them grow up a bit, and to see a completely different side of life.

“Of the people we saved, a percentage of them would have not survived if it wasn’t for the operations in the Med. We help where help is needed.

It strengthens the Defence Forces as a whole, without a shadow of a doubt.

Also strengthening the Forces is the RTÉ documentary The Crossing, which aired this month. The footage follows the crew of the LÉ Samuel Beckett for the first month of their deployment – showing members of the Defence Forces attempting to resuscitate people pulled from the sea.

One of the more interesting parts of the programme was that a lot of migrants didn’t understand the scale of the journey they were to undertake – many of them hadn’t seen the sea before taking a seat on these dangerous boats.

The documentary ends with a question put to one of the migrants: would you have gone on the boat if you had known how dangerous it would be?

No, is the resolute reply.

Read: Defence Forces honoured with award for humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts

Read: ‘Some navy officers rescuing migrants from the Med are on the minimum wage’

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