Refugees afloat at sea will be rescued by a Prince Rupert woman, Amber Sheasgreen, when she puts her marine search and rescue skills to the test, volunteering in Mediterranean waters, starting on Dec. 6.
Sheasgreen, a 10-year volunteer with Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue is donating her vacation time from work and taking unpaid leave to lead and train a team of rescuers. She will be stationed on the Sea Eye 4, a large ocean vessel, and working through the non-profit U.K. organization ‘Refugee Rescue’ who is partnering with a German organization called Sea-Eye.
Migrants, mostly from Libya, are making the treacherous sea voyage fleeing from their homeland to seek safety in European Union countries, by crossing the Mediterranean ocean in rubber boats or makeshift vessels, Sheasgreen told The Northern View.
“This is often a very perilous and dangerous transit, with overloaded vessels. There are children on board and pregnant women. They can only leave with what they have on their backs, and often come into danger from weather, sinking, injuries, dehydration, all sorts of things,” she said.
While stories of refugee ocean rescues were prevalent in the media during 2015-2016, they have fallen out of the public eye, Sheasgreen said. However, the situation is still very much happening and needs attention.
“At least 1,029 people have died or gone missing in the Central Mediterranean route in 2021, the deadliest migratory route in the world. That’s four times more than this time last year,” she stated, adding that a rescue mission launched in October is still underway and has rescued more than 1,200 people.
“I feel like being in Canada, we’re so far away from it. We feel so removed or disconnected or maybe we’re just not as aware,” she said.
She first heard about the volunteer rescue mission from a colleague who had participated in a similar rescue, from Greece. Sheasgreen’s mission will be leaving port from Sicily in early December and will be at sea between six to eight weeks.
This is her first rescue mission and while she is excited to participate, she said it is not a holiday but will help build her skills.
“I thought that this would be an excellent opportunity personally and professionally to see a different side of SAR and a different type environment … to see what it looks like on a mass rescue level versus just a pleasure craft.”
The search and rescue volunteers will be using rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) to collect the stateless people from often overcrowded dinghies or boats.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of mental stress, and it’s going to be very emotional. Being able to manage that, along with being able to maintain professionalism and a clear head in order to lead the team safely — I think it’s going to be eye-opening, humbling and very rewarding.”
Just how long she will be at sea is unknown.
“Depending on restrictions there may be a longer period. We’re not operating off the beach where you are home every night. We are in the middle of the ocean on a ship. Unless there is a serious, critical condition of passengers on board, we wait until the vessel is at full capacity before seeking a port of asylum.”
Some Mediterranean ports are not supportive of having asylum seekers land on their shores to claim refugee status, she said, so it can take a few days or weeks before refugees and rescue crews are permitted into a port.
A Go-Fund-Me campaign has been set up to assist Sheasgreen with expenses. In the first five days it reached $4,565 out of the $5,500 goal. However, the goal is just a ballpark figure as there is no firm return date provided or ticket booked. Expenses could be more than the campaign goal, with open airfares, food, accommodations, insurance and a just under two-month unpaid absence from work.
Prior to embarking on her mission, the journey to Italy will take 30 hours, for which she has to foot the bill. Once in Sicily, the volunteers have to find accommodation at their own expense and are given a few days to acclimate themselves.
Most of the volunteers come from European nations, so their expenses are not as high, the volunteer said.
“The more that I can generate awareness and support, the easier it’ll be for funds and financial position on the organization,” Sheasgreen said.