The thick blanket of humid heat is heavy on the South Chinese Sea. It has been four hours since young photographer Patrick has been observing the horizon. In the early hours of the morning, a small grey dot appears, contrasting the uniformly coloured horizon. The vessel, Mary – chartered by the rich French industrialist Monsieur Gilles – speeds towards the dot. It is a fishing boat. Its wooden body had seen better days. On board are 48 people, mostly women and children.
It is a warm day on the Mediterranean, off the cost of Libya. The sea is calm when the captain of the Aquarius raises the alarm. A distress signal has been received. Minutes later, a small beep appears on the radar screen. It is a race against time now. The small signal on the radar has to be identified with binoculars to confirm that it is indeed a vessel. There it is. The 70-meter Aquarius races to the rescue.
Patrick holds the hand of a ten-year-old boy. His body is frail from malnourishment. Now that the boy is safe, the rest of his family is being rescued. Many women have dirt on their faces and have been hiding under dirty blankets. All this is to avoid being raped by pirates. Once aboard the Mary, the refugees collapse, some cry others pray. Many have no energy to do either. The volunteers of the French association « Partage » and « Médecins du Monde » distribute water, food and clean clothes. Those who have fled the horror are going to sleep on deck for a month before being transferred to refugee camps on land. The lucky ones will be sent to Puerto Princesa in the Philippines. The less fortunate ones to Hong Kong or Singapore, where they will wait months for a visa.
Back near the cost of Libya. Nobody knows exactly how many people are cramped onto the rubber boat. The sea rescue team from the Aquarius approaches the small boat: “Stay calm!” they keep shouting, to reassure the terrified souls on the rubber boat. It is paramount that everyone remains calm. A panic aboard the crowded rubber boat would be a disaster. Life vests are being distributed, as most cannot swim. Once aboard the Aquarius, the rescued receive a survival bag. Now, after this terrible odyssey, it’s time for basic needs: drinking, eating and talking. Signs are posted everywhere on board the Aquarius: “if you have experienced violence or rape, we can provide assistance.” Coming from Sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh or the Middle East, the rescued will set foot on European soil for the first time in their life in just a couple of hours. From there on, they will go their separate ways. Only about 60% will obtain refugee status.
When Saigon fell in 1975, the North had invaded South Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of families were terrified of what would be done to them. To escape the imminent persecution at the hands of the communist troops, many opt to flee across the sea and became known as the boat people. A humanitarian crisis that will arouse indignation in the French intelligentsia. Jean-Paul Sartre making peace with Raymond Aron. In 1979, these two thinkers are invited to the Élysée Palace, they advocate for a political solution to the humanitarian crisis. Patrick, the young photographer is 22 at the time.
35 years later, Patrick has not changed much. He has gained some weight and his hair has turned grey. He is part of the first ever rescue of the Aquarius on 7 March 2016. “Nothing has changed”. Just, that this time men, women and children are fleeing the horrors of war across the Mediterranean. In the hopes for a better future people are spending their life-savings for a tiny spot on a barely seaworthy vessel.
But in times of crisis borders close and nationalistic reflexes prevail over humanitarian impulses of solidarity. One can only repeat what many have heard countless times – and most have stopped hearing – the work of associations such as SOS MEDITERRANNE is essential. Boat People are not a thing of the past; they still exist today. Already in 1979, Jean-Paul Sartre was scandalized enough to say: “They are humans in mortal danger and it is these humans who must be helped because they are human.”
Text by Perrine Baglan.
Pictures by Patrick Bar.