A speck appears on the horizon. I keep my eyes fixed on the point and alert the others on board.
As we get closer, the speck becomes clear – it’s a tightly packed dingy. Although carrying over 100 people, it’s nothing more than an inflated rubber with flimsy plywood in the centre. No one is wearing a life jacket and the rescue crew know that every second counts.
We approach carefully, using a megaphone to tell people to stay calm and reassure them that everyone will be given a life jacket and taken to safety. A young boy clasps his hands in prayer as we quickly start the transfer.
More than 1,000 saved
Moments later, we are called away to assist in a separate rescue, and transfer another 100 people from a different NGO ship.
I dread to think what could have happened if we hadn’t been there. We’ve saved more than 1,100 lives, including 200 children, in the Mediterranean since launching in early September. But this year more than 3,600 people, including 600 children, have already died trying to make the crossing.
Miya, our humanitarian information and communications specialist.
Each morning as day breaks, the crew scours the horizon with binoculars, constantly checking in with the captain on anything they see. The first few hours of sunlight are the most likely times to spot boats coming from the North African coast. They often set off in the dead of night when they cannot be seen by the coastguard.
It is difficult to predict when a rescue will happen, but we know that it is more likely when the wind is blowing from the South and the wave height is below one meter. These conditions mean it is easier for boats with smaller engines to travel further. Over 200,000 people are reported to be waiting to make the journey. As seas grow rougher into the winter months, the crossing will only get more perilous.
Fleeing forced marriage
Amina*, a 16-year-old girl I met from West Africa, was just one of the many who braved danger in hopes of finding a better life.
Amina told me how she was driven across the desert in the back of a truck with no food, water or shelter from the sun. She said she was fleeing from a forced marriage to an older man she had never met. I could see visible signs of abuse on her arms – burns, bruises and scars – from where her step mother had disciplined her.
She left home in the middle of the night and didn’t look back. “As long as I am away from those bad things, they cannot touch me,” she told me. “I want to study medicine so I can go back to my country and help people, especially young girls. It makes me sad to see them suffer.”
Children are travelling alone
The number of children crossing has increased by more than two thirds compared to the same period last year. Over 90% them faced the deadly waters and a new continent without their parents.
We also know this journey is more dangerous than ever. New analysis by our team revealed that two children a day on average died or disappeared between January 1 and September 26.
Needless tragedies like these are a clear sign that saving lives, not border control, should be the over-riding priority for Europe. Our crews are determined to keep going out back to sea and doing whatever we can to help the most vulnerable children.
*Names changed to protect identities