This land is my land, this land is your land…..
(Picking up refugees at sea)
I wrote a blog some time ago with the title “I am blessed”, where I talked about working on a luxury cruise ship, and what we meet sometimes while traveling the world. That story referred to an experience all the way back in 1995. And it gave me The Mother of an eye opener in regards to how different our lives can turn out become.
I was recently “blessed again” by being in such a position once more, observing firsthand how different lives we live, again depending upon where we are born.
This time was even more dramatic than “only” observing how people live around the world. As I was finding myself in the midst of a rescue operation, involving the cruise ship I work on as the ship’s Staff Captain, and 13 persons who had drifted around in a homemade vessel made of mainly Styrofoam. If this is not enough contrast – it was also during a Christmas cruise, the 26th of December to be exact, with all the extra festivities, extraordinary amount of food, beverages, entertainment, and enjoyment in general. A joyful, but also a regular nice and lazy day at sea.
A tiny vessel on the high seas.
And then we spotted this little homemade boat from some distance, which of course was just pure luck. Had we been a few miles to the north, with still 85 (nautical) miles to nearest land north of us (Cayman Islands), there is no way we would have seen this tiny vessel. So yes, luck is the right word, unless you are religious.
As soon as the vessel was spotted, we altered our course in order to pass closer to it. This to determine if the vessel was adrift do to a blackout (no power whatsoever), or had been cast adrift due to breaking lines in bad weather. It had recently been very bad weather in and around the area where Cuba is located in the Caribbean.
As we came closer it became evident that there were people inside, and they had made a homemade mast where they had tied a white piece of cloth to, so they could attract attention. The people in the boat started to wave their arms frantically. We realized what we had in front of us, in this flimsy little boat. Or, at least we thought we knew. Because we only saw a few heads sticking up over the railing, and 2 persons sitting up. As we came closer, we counted 6 of them.
Rescue boat on the water to assist.
Our ship, measuring 264 meters in length, and with 11 Decks above the waterline, must have looked like a mountain which rises up over the water when we move slowly closer to them. And at the same time, we could hardly believe what we saw when looking closer to this little homemade box of a boat. Which clearly had started to fall apart. Obviously due to the weather they had been through. We stopped the ship at some distance from them, according to Safety & Security rules. After all, the first thing now is to determine who they are, and the fact they really are who they claim to be.
One advantage working with people from 45-50 various nations, is that we have crew who can speak most languages. So the Doctor and the Restaurant Manager, who were Spanish speaking, were used as a translators. And as we suspected, they had originally come from Cuba, but the bad weather had sent them in any random direction. The little fuel they had was gone, so they were being brought over the ocean by drifting due to wind and currents. They told us they had been in this little boat for 15 days, and thanks to a rain shower 2 days earlier it had not become life threatening yet. However they showed signs of fatigue and dehydration. Something our ship’s Doctor later confirmed.
At this point they told us they were not 5, not 6, but 13 males onboard ranging from mid-teens to late 50s! They had been stacked like sardines in this little box!
Not a lot of room.
After we had been in contact with the Rescue Coordination Centers belonging to the nearest countries around us. It became clear that none had capabilities to send anyone out for a rescue mission. The nearest was Cayman Islands with prox 85 Nautical miles, but they have no such capacities. It was then decided to pick them up. An easy decision really, considering the human aspect here.
So the Captain took over the maneuvering of the ship, so we could slowly get closer. At the same time we launched a rescue boat, in case any of the people threw themselves in the water, to force us to pick them up. We rigged a pilot ladder (wood and rope ladder) from one of our shell doors in the ship’s side, and we ordered them to one by one climb onboard, for a total search by our security Staff, before being escorted to the ship’s Hospital for a physical check.
All the time while we had telephonic contact with our Company shore side, appraising them about the situation. Standard procedures.
The last of the 13 persons.
I remember standing on the bridge-wing while they started to climb onboard one by one, I commented to one of the ship’s official Photographers who we asked to document it, “yesterday you took pictures of happy families and couples in the Dining rooms onboard when they had their wonderful Christmas dinners. Today you stay here taking pictures of these poor souls who desperately try anything to help their families“. Extreme Contrast. She told me she had a hard time concentrating taking pictures, and not start crying. Unforgettable and powerful moment.
The 13 people were finally taken onboard, and we cast the flimsy little homemade boat adrift, and then sent a navigational message to all the centers around, so they could inform the shipping in the area about it. This little boat were no danger to shipping, but the info was so other ships knew it was cast adrift on purpose.
Security Staff ready to receive the people.
Well that’s it then, right? Not at all.
Because now comes the next step in this process, which is, what to do with them?
First of all, arrange for temporary accommodations onboard, and to make sure they have access to showers, and rest room facilities. Wash their clothing and provide more clothes for them, and feed them properly.
We installed them in a big room we use for meeting activities, and made it into a makeshift bedroom. Gave them plenty of board games, cards, and installed a tv on the wall for them. After all, we had no idea how long we would have to keep them onboard, and let them have access to rest of the ship was not an option security wise.
We knew about lots of cases where refugees or asylum seekers have been stuck onboard for months, due the fact most countries in the world deny them entry.
Most countries sign all kinds of fancy treaties and humanitarian regulations, but when it comes to taking people in, it is as we all know a different matter sometimes.
Most worrying for us was also the fact that we would visit Havana (Cuba) within the next week or so. We really did not want to become a political hot potato.
So we started, via the ship’s Chief Purser to contact the ship agents in the next ports we would call, in order to see if they could communicate with their respective authorities to receive these people.
A ship’s staff-member making sure they have what they need.
As expected, we got a lot of Negative news in the beginning. Which of course made our fear of sailing back to Cuba with these poor souls onboard more real.
But finally, after we even had come and left one port already, with the 13 Cubans still onboard, we got good news.
If they claimed to be Asylum Seekers, the authorities in Guatemala would consider this. Of course a local (government) doctor had to talk to them first, together with immigration.
So we went to see them again, in order to tell them this, and at the same time make sure they did not take this as a guaranteed yes.
Even after they were told to not take this a guarantee, they started to tell us how they would never forget about this. How their families would be forever grateful for what we had done, and so on, and so on.
At this point, you are cold hearted if you are not moved. Very hard to not get wet eyes in this situation. Powerful stuff. The real deal. Again, an unforgettable moment in life. A reminder where we come from.
The decision was finally taken by the local authorities, to take them ashore, and to transport them to a standard immigration facility near the capitol, for processing later. We did then report this to the nearest UNHCR office, by phone and e-mailing. Again by the help of our Spanish speaking Doctor.
On the way to the immigration facility.
We had tried to no avail to contact the UNHCR offices in Geneva, but they didn’t answer any of the numbers, because those fat cats had Christmas vacation.