Times of Malta photojournalist Darrin Zammit Lupi, who joined the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas) crew as a volunteer on board its vessel Phoenix, reports on its latest mission rescuing people from a dinghy in the Mediterranean.

A barely perceptible dot on the horizon, disappearing every few seconds behind the rolling waves, a rubber dinghy carrying a group of migrants is very easily missed if you don’t know where to look.

But the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas) ship Phoenix, having set off from Lampedusa the night before in the middle of a lightning storm that lit up the sky with constant flickers, had, for the past five hours, been making its way towards the dinghy’s last known position.

The ship had already been heading south to its usual area of operations when the call alerting Moas to the migrants came in from Rome’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre as the Phoenix crew were having breakfast.

The Phoenix intercepted the dinghy close to the Bouri oil fields, in the Libyan search and rescue region. The Italian anchor-handling vessel Asso Ventiquattro was monitoring from afar but would not intervene unless the situation became critical.

Approaching the dinghy with the ship would be a recipe for disaster. All the migrants would try to push and shove their way to one side of their boat, causing it to capsize.

So a rigid-hulled inflatable boat was launched and three crew members and I got in. Life jackets were quickly loaded and we set off at high speed towards the dinghy.

Within minutes, we pulled up alongside the dinghy, packed so tight with sub-Saharan Africans that they could barely sit down.

Just one of the 106 immigrants was wearing a life jacket. Their first reaction was one of suspicion – they did not know who we were or what we were doing.

The most important thing to do at this point was to ensure they remained calm and establish contact with someone who spoke some English.

It quickly became clear who the natural leaders among the migrants were.

We explained that we were there to help, and that we had already rescued hundreds of their compatriots.

After establishing that there were no women and children on board, nor any particularly ill and injured men, life jackets started to be tossed to them.

This is always a hazardous moment – they began scrambling and fighting over them and we had to repeat over and over again that there were enough life jackets for everyone.

After further communication with Rome’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, which had earlier assumed coordination of the rescue, it was decided that the safest way to get the migrants on board the Phoenix was to gently nudge the dinghy up against the hull of the ship and to pull them up one by one.

Predictably, they all wanted to climb aboard at once.

The biggest danger remained capsizing, even though a rubber dinghy is actually a lot more stable than many people imagine.

One man half fell into the water as he tried to climb on board before it was his turn, and it was only thanks to the fast reaction of a crew member who grabbed his flailing hand that he did not go all the way in or get caught between the ship and the dinghy, with potentially disastrous results.

These migrants had been sent out there to die

Migrants were frisked by the ship’s security officers and directed towards the stern, where they sat beneath the helipad.

This is where the Phoenix’s two remote-piloted Schiebel aircraft, which can monitor the sea from the sky and provide real-time intelligence to Moas and rescue coordination centres in Malta and Italy, are normally launched.

As they emptied out the dinghy, we could see what the migrants were leaving behind – just a couple of empty water bottles and a handful of used fruit juice cartons.

Their fuel supply was running low and even though they had not been on their perilous journey for very long, half the jerry cans were empty. At that point there was no doubt in our minds – these migrants had been sent out there to die.

Moas has built up an excellent working relationship with Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue vessels and normally links up with them to transfer migrants, but as there were no Italian navy or coastguard vessels anywhere nearby, the Phoenix was directed to head for Pozzallo in Sicily.

The migrants had no choice but to spend the next 24 hours huddled at the back of the ship as it sailed through the storm that also struck Malta at the weekend.

They were then handed over to the Italian authorities in Pozzallo on Sunday evening, and the Phoenix departed early next morning, heading back home after another successful mission.

A report by the International Organisation for Migration established that more than 3,000 migrants, out of the 4,000 believed to have died globally this year, perished while crossing the Mediterranean.

As the Phoenix sailed into Grand Harbour, the Siege Bell tolled, the cannon on the Barrakka Saluting Battery was fired – a sombre mood punctured by the sense of elation that this time lives were saved.

The mission

Moas, which started operating at the end of August, has now been of assistance in the rescue of some 2,200 migrants crossing from Libyan shores.

A privately funded humanitarian initiative, set up by Chris and Regina Catrambone, it consists of a 40-metre ship, Phoenix, manned by a professional crew of rescuers, seafarers, paramedics and humanitarians.

To monitor the progress of the vessel and keep up to date with the latest news, follow Moas on twitter @moas_eu and use the hashtag #MOAS to enter discussions about migration. Donations can be made at www.moas.eu.

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