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47 pictures depicting the despair of the Mediterranean crisis: They struggle. They fight to get out of the water. They strain to find something to cling to. Four of them drown

Politiken photographer Jacob Ehrbahn has selected the most striking photographs taken over the course of two weeks aboard the German rescue vessel Sea-Watch 2.

For a period of 13 days, Politiken photographer Jacob Ehrbahn and reporter Kjeld Hybel followed the rescue efforts of the German vessel Sea-Watch 2 whose crew of volunteers strive to rescue boat people stranded in the Mediterranean Sea, which has been termed the world’s largest mass grave.

The 47 photograph capture the reality of the Mediterranean Sea as it is today.

Last year 5,000 people lost their lives trying to reach Europe. Since the turn of the year, an additional 1,500 people have perished, according to official estimates. In the coming months even more will embark on the voyage aboard ramshackle boats and dinghies from the coast of North Africa. Even more will drown.

Those are the numbers. These are the pictures …

On the first morning following Sea-Watch 2’s departure from Malta into the open sea, a rescue mission is already underway. A woman is pulled from the water and saved from drowning in the nick of time. In mid-ocean, the bottom fell out of the rubber dinghy she was a passenger on.

The woman is in a state of shock when she is helped aboard the rescue ship Sea-Watch 2.

She is far from the only one who escaped mortal danger that day. Around 125 people, primarily from Nigeria and Ghana, were aboard the dinghy when the bottom fell out. The passengers are desperate to escape the water – or at least just to have something to cling to.

The rescue operation takes place about 60 kilometers from the Libyan coast.

At the time, the survivors are exhausted and dehydrated, having been at sea for around 16 hours. The woman in the foreground is one of the people rescued. But for four others, help arrives too late. They drown during the rescue operation. One of them is the mother of a 16-month-old toddler.

Some are near-unconscious as they are pulled into the rescue boats. In this picture, the Sea-Watch interpreter attends to a young woman, helping her regain consciousness.

The Sea-Watch 2 vessel is a former research ship, acquired two years ago by the German grass-root movement and reconditioned for the rescue efforts. The vessel is out to sea for two weeks at a time during most months of the year – with a crew of 16 volunteers.

This mission, which is Sea-Watch’s sixth this year, is spearheaded by Dutchman Nico. Standing behind him is the ship’s South Korean captain Kim. The grass-root movement has requested not to bring the full names of the Sea-Watch volunteers as some of them have been targeted and attacked by individuals who would rather that the refugees drown.

The first question asked when the Sea-Watch crew reach the boat is whether there are any sick passengers on board. Or any dead people. Life jackets are then distributed to the refugees. The passengers are asked to remain calm to avoid chaos and keep the passengers from leaping into the water to reach the motorboat.

In teams of 15-20, the refugees are transported to Sea-Watch 2 or one of the other major rescue vessels. Women and children are given priority. In this picture, one of the engineers, Jakob, transports a child from the dinghy to the mother, who has been brought to safety already.

Aboard Sea-Watch 2, the refugees receive thermal blankets, food and drink – and are offered a medical examination by the ship’s medical team. They are later transferred to a different vessel bound for Italy with greater capacity and more power– it might be from another NGO or the Italian coastguard. The picture is taken from the ship’s bridge.

Many of the refugees are in a state of profound exhaustion …

And so are the volunteers, working day and night to intercept people at sea. Over the course of the two weeks, the Sea-Watch crew provide assistance for more than 1,400 people in distress – all the while performing drills, keeping a lookout, and cleaning the ship.

At sea, the flow of boats seems endless …

Women and children are typically seated on the floor of the rubber dinghies. Most disturbingly, this means that they often sit in a caustic mixture of petrol, urine, faeces, and salt water, resulting in so-called chemical burns – large burn-like injuries on their legs, stomach, and abdomen.

It remains unclear what the refugees are promised by the human traffickers who make the arrangements. One thing is certain: Virtually none of the open boats with their weak outboard motors are able of reaching Italy, a voyage lasting 6-7 days. 12 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, they find themselves in international waters. And here there is a chance that they are picked up by the NGO ships or the Italian coastguard. Otherwise, they are likely to drown.

Sometimes a vessel from the Libyan coastguard heads out to light the empty boats on fire, in order to ensure they are not redeployed.

Leg after leg after leg – and no shoes. The passengers sit close together on the refugee boats. Just above surface level. Even at night, they remain seated in this manner.

Many of the refugees become seasick. For many of them, it is their first time at sea.

Panic starts to spread. Even among those that remain aboard the sinking dinghy.

A group of refugees tries to remain calm and keep together to protect those without lifejackets such as the woman in the middle and the man on the far left. The body of a drowned pregnant woman floats between the ones still fighting for their lives.

Close by, the operator of one of the Sea Watch motor boats, Chris wearing the white helmet, is trying to rescue the refugees by pulling as many as possible from the water – to the point that his own boat is on the verge of sinking. The situation starts to become critical and Chris calls out to the crew on the other motorboat to head over to take on some of the refugees.

The Sea-Watch crew manage to retrieve all the passengers from the water. However, the pregnant woman is beyond help. It is nothing short of a miracle that no-one else has died. When everyone has reached safety, the rescuers collect the body and haul it aboard the rescue ship.

Once aboard the ship, many withdraw into themselves. Others collapse.

A dehydrated, exhausted, seasick refugee receives a medical check aboard Sea-Watch 2.

The ones worst affected are permitted to lie down outside the clinic, waiting to be examined by one of the doctors.

Sea-Watch is not the only NGO vessel navigating the seas on the lookout for refugee boats.

Several NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders, command large, well-equipped rescue vessels, capable of accommodating a greater number of refugees than Sea-Watch 2. It is routine procedure that the refugees – either immediately or shortly after being rescued by smaller NGO ships – are transported to one of these large vessels, bound for Italy.

On one of the rescue operations, the Sea-Watch crew approach a boat so crowded and so dilapidated that they fear it will sink before they can bring everyone to safety. To avoid this, they deploy a life raft and order 25 people to crawl aboard to minimize the stress on the rubber dinghy.

Two Sea-Watch crew members are on the lookout for refugee boats round the clock. Furthermore, the ship’s radar is used to locate vessels at sea. Finally, the organization commands a plane, which reports to all NGOs in the rescue area. In this picture, the pilot greets the crew members.

By and large, the refugee boats, loaded to the point of almost bursting, are low in the water. As a result, the radar fails to detect them. When using the binoculars, the crew members see only tiny dots in the horizon. Up close, the dots turn out to be boats …

… and people, destinies, faces.

Sea-Watch 2 can hold around 200 refugees, but when fully loaded, the vessel drifts slowly upon the sea until one of the larger vessels arrive to transport the castaways to Italy. During the fortnight Politiken was onboard, refugees stayed aboard Sea-Watch 2 for a maximum of ten hours.

The vast majority of the boat people are male. But this picture captures a mother and her young daughter recently rescued at sea.

One of the refugees has tried waterproofing his mobile phone.

Ready. Ready to be helped aboard one of the larger NGO ships that will transport them to Italy. What awaits them there? Sea-Watch 2’s first officer is less than optimistic about their destinies. They will be placed in camps. Most of them will be returned to the country they came from. The rest will have shitty lives in Europe, as the first officer puts it.

On the second-to-last day of the mission, the Sea-Watch crew are preparing for the 24-hour voyage back to the port in Malta. But suddenly a report comes in from the Italian rescue service regarding a refugee boat some three to four hours away. It turns out that it has been at sea for three days, having run out of fuel, food and water. The day before three people aboard the boat died.

The approximately 130 people onboard the boat are in a state of panic. They are begging the Sea-Watch crew in the motorboat to get closer and help them. Some of them start to scream. And refuse to remain seated. A fight breaks out. The refugees are so desperate that the rescuers fear a deadly chaos if they begin handing out life jackets or decide to bring the first 20 people into the motorboat. Instead, they give them fuel and order them to sail to Sea-Watch 2.

The refugees are helped on board Sea-Watch 2. The refugees are relieved. Some are incapable of crawling aboard on their own accord. They are exhausted to the point of collapsing. They look like ghosts.

Normally, the crew hand out energy bars and water to the rescued refugees. But this will not suffice. The ship’s cook heads below deck and prepares a meal. Rice with beans.

As darkness falls, the temperature drops. Many are unable to keep warm under the thin golden thermal blankets. The ship is sparsely equipped – and the Sea-Watch crew are unsure how long the refugees will have to stay. But after counting the number of heating blankets, it turns out that there are enough to go around and the crew hand them out.

The refugees desperately cling to the warm, orange blankets when the Italian coastguard arrives from Lampedusa in two high-speed boats after midnight to collect the refugees. After ten tranquil hours on Sea-Watch 2, the calm is shattered and fear starts to spread among the 130 refugees. The Italian soldiers are dressed in white protective suits and are wearing masks that cover their noses and mouths. Some of them shout at the refugees and one of them resorts to kicking to get them to board the boats. A new phase of their journey has commenced. Next stop – Europe.

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