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Geo Barents Ship, Mediterranean Sea – It was Wednesday, May 11, 2022, and a small fishing boat drifted in the Mediterranean, some 240km (155 miles) south of the coast of Malta. On board, the 29 passengers – all without life jackets or supplies – faced their third night on the open sea.
Before the small fibreglass boat had set off from Sabratah, Libya, about 200km (120 miles) away, smugglers had handed a satellite phone with GPS to one of the passengers – the young, enterprising and charismatic Jay*, who they chose to pilot the vessel because of his previous boat-handling experience.
The boat slowly moved north, towards Malta’s search and rescue region (SRR), until Wednesday evening, when the passengers were safely out of the Libyan SRR, where, if they were found by the Libyan Coast Guard, they would be returned to Libya.
Just before 9pm, Jay took out the satellite phone and called Alarm Phone – a charitable organisation monitoring distress calls in the Mediterranean – which then relayed the call to the local Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) of Malta – RCC Malta – and to the MRCC in Rome as well as to non-governmental search and rescue (SAR) ships operating in the area.
Shortly after, shrouded in darkness, the passengers – among them a dozen minors and two women – noticed the lights of a ship on the horizon behind them.
Half the passengers were hopeful the ship would take them to Europe, while others worried it was the Libyan Coast Guard.
Every year, thousands of migrants and refugees depart from Libya, attempting to reach Europe in unseaworthy vessels. Last year, Frontex detections of what it calls “illegal border crossings” were at their highest since 2017, and attempts from January to May this year were 15 percent higher than during the same period in 2021, with the journeys across the Mediterranean becoming increasingly fatal, and around half being intercepted by authorities who return the refugees and migrants to Libya.
The passengers on the small fibreglass boat knew the odds of succeeding, as they sat watching the lights of the ship in the distance. They hoped to be rescued but were also terrified of being returned to Libya, so they spent the next few hours trying to outrun the ship. Finally, they agreed on a different plan: to circle around and identify their pursuer from behind.