As dozens of African migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a flimsy white rubber boat, 'a small aircraft' flying 1,000 feet above the seabed closely monitored their attempt to reach Europe.
The twin-engine Seabird, which is owned by the German non-governmental organization Sea-Watch, is charged with documenting human rights violations committed against migrants at sea and relaying distress cases to nearby ships and authorities who have increasingly ignored their pleas.
On this cloudy October afternoon, an approaching thunderstorm increased the dangers for the overcrowded boat. According to the United Nations migration agency, since 2014, roughly 23,000 people have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe.
Nour 2, Nour 2, this is aircraft Seabird, aircraft Airbird, Eike Bretschneider, the aircrafts tactical coordinator, communicated via radio with the only vessel nearby. The captain of the Nour 2 agreed to change course and check up on the flimsy boat. However, when the boat had a Libyan flag, the people refused its assistance, according to the captain, on the crackling radio.
The captain, who did not identify himself by name, told the Seabird that they claim to only have 20 liters of fuel left. They want to continue on their journey.
The small boat's destination was Lampedusa, Italy, where visitors sitting in outdoor cafes sip on Aperol Spritz, unaware of what was unfolding 60 nautical miles (111 km/68 miles) south of them on the Mediterranean Sea.
Bretschneider, a 30-year-old social worker, made some quick calculations and concluded the migrants must have left Libya approximately 20 hours ago and had some 15 hours ahead of them before they reached Lampedusa. That was if their boat didn't fall apart or capsize along the way.
Despite the risks, many migrants and refugees say theyd rather die trying to get to Europe than be returned to Libya where, upon embarkation, they are held in detention centers and subjected to severing treatment.
Bretschneider sent the rubber boat's coordinates to the air liaison officer in Berlin, who then relayed the position (inside the Maltese Search and Rescue zone) to Malta and Italy. They did not receive a response, which was unusual for them.
The Seabird had to leave the scene due to running low on fuel.
We can only hope that the people will reach the shore at some point or will be rescued by a European coast guard vessel, Bretschneider told AP as they made their way back.
The activists have grown used to having their distress calls go unanswered.
For years human rights groups and international law experts have denounced that European countries are neglecting their international obligations to rescue migrants at sea. Instead, they've outsourced rescues to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has a long history of reckless interceptions as well as ties to human traffickers and militias.
Im sorry, we dont speak with NGOs, a man answering the phone of the Maltese Rescue and Coordination Center told swiss citizen Sea-Watch inquiring about ailing oath in June. In a separate call to the Rescue and Coordination Center in Rome, he was told: We have no information to report to you.
On behalf of AP, Malta and Italy did not respond to queries.
The task of getting in touch with the Libyan rescue and coordination center is an even greater challenge. On the rare occasion that someone does pick up, the person on the other side of the line doesnt speak English.
According to the Italian Ministry of Interior, more than 49,000 migrants have so far entered italy this year, nearly double the number of people who entered in the same time period last year.
Although it is illegal for European vessels to return rescued migrants to Libya themselves, information shared by EU surveillance drones and planes has allowed the Libyan Coast Guard to significantly increase its ability to prevent migrants from reaching Europe. So far this year, it has intercepted approximately half of those who have attempted to leave, returning more than 26,000 men, women, and children to Libya.
Sea-Watch has relied on millions of euros in donations from individuals over the past several years to expand its air monitoring capabilities. It now has two small aircraft that, with a bird's-eye view, can locate boats in distress much quicker than ships.
If the plane's location is known, it may be possible to locate a distress case in less than ten minutes if it is taken off Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than Italy. But when there are no precise coordinates, they must fly a search pattern, sometimes for hours, and scan the ocean with the aid of binoculars.
Even when flying low, finding a tiny boat in the vast Mediterranean may put the most experienced eyes in strain. The three- to four-person volunteer staff notices every tiny speck on the horizon that could possibly be people in distress.
Target at 10 o'clock," the Seabird's photographer sitting in the back alerted on a recent flight.
The pilot veered left to inspect it.
Bretschneider, the tactical coordinator, replied, "Fishing boat, disregard."
Breaking waves may play tricks and for a few seconds look like bouncing boats in the distance in rough seas. The targets often end up being nothing at all, and the Seabird returns to land hours later without any new information.
But finding boats in distress is only the beginning. Getting them rescued is equally as difficult, if not harder.
Sea-Watch relies on the good will of merchant vessels traveling the area in the absence of state rescue vessels and NGO ships, which are increasingly prevented from leaving port. Nevertheless, many are reluctant to get involved after several commercial vessels were stuck at sea for days as they waited for Italy's or Malta' s permission to release rescued migrants. Others have taken them back to Libya in violation of maritime and refugee conventions.
This week, a court in Naples convicted the captain of an italian commercial ship of returning 101 migrants to Libya in 2018.
Without any state authority, the Seabird can only remind captains of their duty to rescue individuals in distress. Bretschneider recently secured an italian supply vessel to rescue 65 people from a drifting migrant boat, just moments before the Libyan Coast Guard arrived.
On another mission a few days later, the Seabird returned from its flight without knowing what would happen to the people they had seen on the white rubber boat.
Bretschneider checked his phone at dinner that night, hoping for good news. On the other side of the Mediterranean, 17 bodies had been washed up in Western Libya, apparently from a different boat.
The Seabird returned the following day to look for the white rubber boat, but in vain. On their way back, they received a text from land.
The white rubber boat had reached waters near Lampedusa and was intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard. The people had made it.