Migrants crossing Mediterranean on 'inflated death trap'

Migrants being rescued in the Mediterranean (Rosemarie North/Twitter)
Migrants being rescued in the Mediterranean (Rosemarie North/Twitter)

It's dark, the sun is yet to rise - but aid teams are already working, looking and listening for signs of migrant boats in the south Mediterranean Sea.

The call comes through, there's an overloaded dingy not far from the ship. It's time for action, and rescue teams are on their way.

This is a common occurrence for the Responder, a Migrant Offshore Aid Station. They work relentlessly, along with the Red Cross, to save migrant lives.

New Zealand aid worker Rosemarie North is part of the Red Cross team, she is currently four days into a three week rotation on-board the ship and has been documenting the journey on Twitter.

"We help look after people. It's kind of minimal, we call it a floating ambulance because we don't offer very much on board. It's basically safe passage to land."

In the last four days, the rescue teams have saved more than 400 lives, from just six pick-ups in the southern Mediterranean Sea.

Migrants crossing Mediterranean on 'inflated death trap'

Early one morning, they managed to save 134 people, including six-month old twins and an eight-month-old baby.

"We found more than 100 people perched on the edge of this inflated death trap - they didn't have life jackets, they couldn't swim, but there was high octane fuel leaking from the fuel chamber on the boat. And people became intoxicated, they behaved really strangely, some of them fainted and fell into the water and other passengers started to panic," Ms North recalls.

Migrants crossing Mediterranean on 'inflated death trap'

(Rosemarie North/Twitter)

She explains that after everyone is safely on the ship and everything has calmed down, there is a chance to talk to people about the trauma they have already gone through to get to that moment.

She met one man from Libya who had a panic attack on the ship.

"He told me that in Libya, he'd seen his mother and two brothers killed in front of him and people had abducted his sister and when he tried to stop them, they stabbed him - and he showed on his chest, the stab wound. He was just distraught because that was his whole family gone."

The people they rescued had come from as far as Bangladesh, migrant workers who were working without pay in Libya.

"People have all different kinds of reasons for leaving and yet although they have an incomplete picture of how risky the trip is across the Mediterranean, still they have to be really desperate to do it."

On Wednesday, local time, the Responder docked in Sicily, bringing 351 migrants back on dry land.

"Some of them really have minimal clothing and most of them no shoes. They're given a toothbrush, soap and a towel and y'know, a hot meal, and some place to stay."

Ms North says she has been overwhelmed by support from back home in Aotearoa.

"I feel really grateful that Kiwis have opened their hearts to this issue because it's really far away but it's pretty serious."

"No one should be forced to flee from conflict or violence, or because they just can't make a living at home."

It is not yet known what will happen to the hundreds of refugees that are now in Italy.  Those who meet the refugee criteria will apply for asylum but those who do not will be deported.

"When people disembarked I was waving and smiling and giving them a big thumbs up but I was also really sad because I will probably never see them again"

"It's nice to know you've helped people along their journey but it's going to be really tough for a lot of them"