ISTANBUL — Capt. Joshua Peris Bhatt and his crew left Latvia one morning last fall aboard a dry bulk carrier hauling 27,000 metric tons of barley. Destined for Qatar, the ship sailed into the Mediterranean Sea, making it just beyond Italy when it was suddenly told to change course.
A maritime rescue center in Malta informed Bhatt that his ship, Campbell Shipping’s Caprice, was the nearest to another vessel in distress. There were few other details. Just coordinates — a position about two hours from Bhatt’s location — and an estimate that 400 to 500 passengers were aboard the stricken vessel.
Unless the coast guard could somehow get there first, Bhatt understood that he would be in for a massive rescue operation.
But when he arrived at the coordinates, there were no other ships in sight — no coast guard and nothing large enough to hold that many passengers. Just a small fishing boat, bobbing in the distance.
Bhatt checked the coordinates again and put out calls over the radio until finally he got a response.
“Yes, big ship,” a man said. “We have a problem.”
One of the few English speakers aboard the boat, he said the small fishing boat was the one that called for help. The passengers did not have enough food or water, and there were pregnant women on board. Their captain had abandoned ship, taking off in another fishing boat off the coast of Libya. Bhatt couldn’t imagine how such a small vessel could hold hundreds of people and wondered if the whole thing was a ruse. But as he steamed closer, his skepticism turned to shock.
A mass of migrants were crammed into every inch of the vessel — so many that some appeared to be hanging off the side. Through his binoculars, he could make out children.
“They literally lifted up their babies, and they showed me,” Bhatt recalled of the Oct. 22 rescue operation. “It was really difficult to believe.”
But it’s a scene that’s playing out again and again in the stretch of sea between Libya and Italy — the center of the world’s migrant crisis.
Upheaval across the Middle East and parts of Africa is causing people to flee their homes on a scale not seen since World War II. In junked fishing boats and in the belly of dilapidated ships, they are attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach the safety of Europe’s shores, with thousands dying along the way.
Governments in Europe have failed to keep pace with this human surge, leaving search-and-rescue operations increasingly in the hands of commercial vessels. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, some 40,000 migrants were plucked from the Mediterranean last year by commercial captains and crews piloting everything from oil tankers to cruise ships with their own guests on board.
Captains point out that they are bound by law and human decency to respond to emergencies at sea. But they warn that neither merchant crews nor their vessels are equipped to handle such large-scale operations and that reliance on them puts both migrants and seafarers at risk.
“We are not ready,” said Capt. Bekir Emiral, the operations manager of Turkon Holding, a Turkish shipping company that was called to the scene of three migrant rescues in the past year, most recently in April. “We are container vessels with very limited accommodations. We don’t have enough water or food on board. And what if somebody dies or gets injured? Who will be responsible?”
As summer approaches, the number of migrants attempting to cross to Europe by sea is expected to only increase, and maritime groups are becoming more vocal about the need for beefed-up EU-run patrols.
The EU did decide to boost resources for search-and-rescue operations after the death of some 800 migrants in a disaster on April 19, when a boat capsized off the coast of Libya. Under the new plan, European authorities will target smugglers more aggressively while increasing funding for patrol operations run by the EU border control agency, Frontex.
Still, maritime groups say the proposed measures are a far cry from what’s needed.
According to Patrick Verhoeven, the secretary general of the European Community Shipowners’ Associations, the solution would be a search-and-rescue mission that’s large scale and able to operate far from EU territorial waters where most migrant rescues take place.
Critics have raised concerns that a border control agency — instead of an agency with a humanitarian mission — is leading the charge to respond to the crisis. Ship captains, meanwhile, have complained that there is a lack of clarity on where they should take migrants rescued in international waters.
The lack of such protocol left Bhatt in a tricky situation. The man from the fishing boat refused to cooperate with a rescue unless Bhatt could guarantee he would take them to Italy, but Bhatt had no idea who would accept them. Unsatisfied, the man went silent, the two vessels in a stalemate as waves relentlessly pounded the smaller boat.