The Seabird joins the Moonbird in the Mediterranean aerial operations spotting migrant boats in distress | Photo: Sea-Watch
The Seabird joins the Moonbird in the Mediterranean aerial operations spotting migrant boats in distress | Photo: Sea-Watch

The German NGO Sea-Watch has recently acquired a new aircraft in cooperation with the Swiss Humanitarian Pilots Initiative (HPI). The aircraft, which has been named Seabird, will be used for civil air reconnaissance missions off the coast of Libya, from where hundreds of migrants depart on makeshift boats to Europe every week . The new aircraft is an addition to the Moonbird, which has been active since 2017.

InfoMigrants spoke to Kai, technical coordinator for the two aircraft. Kai has flown hundreds of hours in recent months in search of migrants in distress.

InfoMigrants: Why did you decide to acquire an additional search plane?

We wanted to add an extra plane as we were making long technical stops between each mission with the Moonbird. The plane had to go for maintenance every 100 flying hours, which is usually a rather long procedure. So in order not to have these long periods of downtime, we have added an aircraft last week, the Seabird.

The other thing is that we're finding it increasingly difficult to contact the authorities when small boats are in distress. The same goes for humanitarian ships. Yet more and more migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. We therefore felt it was necessary to send an aircraft as often as possible to fly over the SAR [Search And Rescue] zone, and find migrants in distress on our own rather than waiting for meager information from the authorities.

How is a small aircraft useful in a rescue where you cannot physically intervene yourself?

K.: From the air, you can cover much greater distances than on a humanitarian ship. You really get a better overview of the situation, whereas on a ship, you are much more limited. In June alone, we performed 14 missions and spotted 21 boats with more than 940 migrants in total in distress. And those are just the boats we spotted. We must also take into account the hundreds of migrants intercepted by Libya's coast guard, or those who disappear without even leaving a trace of the shipwreck.

What remains most impressive for me is to see how vast the central Mediterranean is, and how there are just so few ships and so little help for migrants. We spend six to eight hours flying over the sea in our small planes, and sometimes we can't find anyone. But other times we manage to make a real impact. That's what pushes us to go back to flying every time.

We have completed about 290 missions since 2017. We didn't really keep statistics at the beginning, but we estimate that we've spotted about 20,000 people in distress.

IM: How do you choose the days on which you decide to carry out a mission, and how often do you fly over the distress zone off Libya?

K.: On average, we fly 12 to 15 days a month. Our technical council and the head of mission ashore are responsible each day for assessing the situation, to see if there is a noteworthy pattern emerging over the last few days – for example, a peak in departures from a particular city at a particular time of day. They're the ones who will direct us to where we should be going and whether it looks like it's worth going out that day.

If it is, we primarily observe the weather in the SAR zone and we also gather the little information that the authorities have been kind enough to give us, particularly through radar. We have about three or four people in the plane on each mission: an HPI pilot, a tactical coordinator who plans the flight, and determines where to fly and when to take off. We also have one person who documents the mission by taking as many pictures as possible. If we have room, we also add a "spotter" who scans the sea through the window, looking for boats. And sometimes a journalist to create awareness about the situation.

IM: What happens when you spot a boat in distress? Or lifeless bodies, like the ones you discovered this week off the coast of Libya?

K.: When we spot a boat in distress, we inform our ground crew of its position. They then pass this information on to the authorities, namely the Italian, Maltese and Libyan coast guard MRCCs, [Maritime Rescue Coordination Center], so that everyone is informed and can take action. Our main problem is that they are completely unresponsive. For example, with Libya, we call nine different numbers to try to alert the rescue services, but each time we come across people who claim not to speak English. It's not just the Libyans who are not responsive. Today we called the MRCC in Malta to inform them of a boat in distress in their waters. They told us that they refused to communicate with NGOs. They don't care.

At the same time, we are also informing humanitarian vessels. We have no choice if we want the boats in distress to have a chance of getting out. The closest commercial vessels are also contacted, and we ask them if they can carry out the rescue or at least stay with the boat in distress until a humanitarian vessel can arrive.

I have been fortunate so far not to see any lifeless bodies during my missions. But I am preparing for that. Luckily, we have psychological support when that happens.

It may be a larger shipwreck that we don't know about and only a few bodies are found. Or it could be that Libya's coast guard, during an interception, leaves these people in the water. We can never really confirm this because, unlike NGO boats, Libya's coast guard does not mark the remains of boats to indicate that they have intervened, and that the migrants are safe. 

The Mediterranean continues to be a giant invisible graveyard since most of the bodies from shipwrecks are never found.


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