The Irish Navy: Life-saver on the high seas

Ed Forry

The Irish Navy is playing a major life-saving role in the rescue of thousands of men, women, and children among a wave of refugees seeking asylum in Europe from the chaos in the Middle East.

The LÉ Eithne, the flagship of Ireland’s Naval Service, is very familiar in Boston; it has made several visits here, most recently in July of 2009 during the Tall Ships celebration. The Eithne was deployed to the Mediterranean in late May to participate with other nations in a humanitarian rescue operation that in the first four weeks has rescued thousands from sinking vessels. The migrants are fleeing from Libya and other coastal areas of North Africa, paying smugglers in desperate attempts to reach safe haven across the Mediterranean.

At the end of June, the Irish Navy reported that a total of 2,729 people had been rescued since then the Eithne began search and rescue (SAR) operations on May 28. I learned about the heroic deeds through postings on the Irish Navy’s Facebook page, where updates appear daily. On one day in late June, the Irish sailors did five SARs, and were returning to port with 496 men, 92 women, and 6 children on board.

An Irish naval commander who has helped to rescue hundreds of migrants has said the scale of the human tragedy is “unprecedented.” According to a BBC report, the Eithne’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Eric Timon, said the humanitarian rescue has been “relentless.” The BBC report said that “the numbers of people fleeing Africa for whatever reason... casting themselves adrift on unseaworthy vessels in the hope of rescue or the hope of reaching European shores, it’s quite extraordinary. Many of the migrants have spent days at sea without water and are in very poor health when rescue boats reach them.”

The captain described how the Eithne responded to a distress call on Monday, June 22, from “an inflatable craft approximately 50 miles northwest of the coast of Libya”. Little did the ship’s company know that there was going to be a further two distress calls and seven hours later they had rescued over 500 people, including 20 children.”

The migrants were transferred from their sinking boats to the safety of the Irish ship. In a statement, the Irish Naval Service said the Eithne rescued 104 migrants from the inflatable craft at 05:16 on June 23 and was immediately re-tasked to rescue a further 362 people from a barge 50 nautical miles northwest of Tripoli. Within 45 minutes of the barge rescue, the crew saved 53 migrants from a small fibre-glass boat. Timon said crews worked hard to ensure there was no panic during rescue missions because it was a very dangerous situation for the migrants.

“First of all, these vessels are sinking; that’s the number one thing. So these people are quite scared. We need to reassure these people, first of all, that they are going to be saved and not to panic, and to control that is very important. … Many of these people have never seen the ocean, let alone been cast adrift on it. So they have sea sickness, which has a dehydrating effect, which is also compounded by the hot sun in the Mediterranean. As soon as we get them on board the ship, they’re medically screened by our staff on board and they’re given additional medical attention if necessary. They are also given water, food, and clothing before being taken to a port of refuge.

“We’ve come across other vessels where we’ve given them water and that’s the first water they’ve seen for days,” the captain said.