BC SAR chief spent Christmas rescuing refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean

“These are people, and they always die at sea. I can’t imagine the traumas and horrors they face in their own country… to voluntarily attempt a trip like this.” – Amber Sheasgreen

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The small wooden boat held 15 people, including a pregnant woman, all full of seawater.


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Amber Sheasgreen took a few deep breaths as her workout began. Leading a crew of three, she helped the refugees board a rigid-hull inflatable boat called the Mo Chara, then transported them to a larger ship, the Sea-Eye. 4.

Sheasgreen, an operations manager with The Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (RCMSAR) on the northwest coast of British Columbia, takes advantage of its Christmas vacation to work with Sea-Eye, a non-governmental organization that rescues refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.

“(It was) amazing to see and experience the rescue in person,” she said Thursday in an interview with Sea-Eye 4, off the coast of Italy.

Six days after the first rescue, the organization had just learned that the boat had secured a safe harbor in Pozzallo, Sicily. Two hundred and twenty-three refugees, including eight children, had to disembark from Sea-Eye 4 before Christmas to seek asylum.


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“It’s a Christmas miracle,” Sheasgreen said.

As the refugee crisis in the central Mediterranean faded from the headlines in Canada, migration continued, according to a report by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, an estimated 20,000 people died or died. have disappeared in the region over the past decade. As of mid-June, 664 people had died or were missing in 2021.

“One of the impacts of COVID has been to make the situation of refugees around the world more precarious and more invisible,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “But while the rest of the world has focused on COVID… the basic dynamics of the crisis have not changed at all.”

Dench said European countries have made efforts to prevent people from crossing Africa and the Middle East, in the same way that Canada and the United States have also tried to block entry at our borders. While they sometimes clash with governments, NGOs play a key role in raising the profile of the crisis.


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“There is power in visibility – in standing up and denouncing what governments are trying to do and showing the public what is going on,” she said.

For Sheasgreen, a former Prince Rupert longshoreman who worked and volunteered with RCMSAR for 10 years, rescues are all about saving lives.

“I volunteered to do this because I am passionate about helping people and search and rescue,” she said, adding that “every life counts.”

“I didn’t even know it was happening yet to be honest,” she said. “But these are people, and they always die at sea. I can’t imagine the traumas and horrors they face in their own country… to voluntarily attempt a trip like this.

The Mo Chara, the inflatable rescue boat operated by Sheasgreen, is owned by Refugee Rescue, a charity based in Northern Ireland.


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“As mariners, we are obligated by maritime law to rescue people and bring them to a safe port,” said spokesperson Joby Fox, an artist who intended to aid rescue efforts. for a few weeks in 2015, but “couldn’t walk a way.”

Refugee Rescue lends its rescue boat to Sea-Eye, which operates a supply ship that includes living quarters, an infirmary and two rescue boats to approach migrant ships. Since 2015, the group has rescued 16,000 people in the central Mediterranean, including 1,417 this year through four rescue missions, said spokeswoman Sophie Weidenhiller.

During last week’s rescue, the crew found people in poor condition with injuries, including two children with broken bones and others with infections, pneumonia, scabies, signs of torture, abuse and violence – “and all are traumatized by what they had to endure in Libya, as well as before and after,” she said.


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“It’s really very simple, people keep running away and dying just because it’s the holidays – so we won’t stop doing our best to save them either.” Saving lives should always be a priority, we should not lose our humanity – and especially around Christmas everyone should remember this. “

On board the Sea-Eye 4, the refugees were given a mattress and blanket while they waited for a safe harbor.

“A lot of people seem to get tired as the days drag on,” Sheasgreen said. “It’s hard not to be able to tell them when we’ll have a port, or how long we’ll be at sea.”

But she added: “It also offers the possibility to connect and share our humanity.”

His plans for Christmas are simple: there can be baking, decorations, and music. He will miss his family and friends, but plans to see them when he returns to British Columbia in the New Year.


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“At the end of the day, I can choose to celebrate with my loved ones anytime of the year,” she said.

“I’m still educating myself and have a long way to go to understand the whole picture. What I will say is that it is happening and it is real. It’s a political landscape, one that needs to be handled with care, and there are a number of organizations that do a great job of helping. “

  1. Vancouverite doctor Reza Eshaghian recently spent four months leading the Doctors Without Borders medical team in al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria.  He was shocked at the suffering he saw, especially in children.

    ‘We live in one world’: Vancouver doctor sheds light on plight of children in Syrian detention camps

  2. Chris Friesen, Director of Settlement Services at the Immigrant Services Society of BC

    Syrian refugees: two years later, most happy in B.C., but struggling financially

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