“I’ve saved people who saw their loved ones drown – speedboats can only go so fast” – World News
Brendan Woodhouse knew he was in a race against time as his speedboat plunged through 10 miles of choppy Mediterranean waves.
For in the water before them, their lives flowing back, were 55 men, women and children.
They had traveled in hope of a safe new life, but their fragile inflatable buoy had sunk.
Today, covered in fuel burns, these refugees – two of whom were heavily pregnant – who had escaped war, torture and human trafficking, suffered from extreme exhaustion, hypothermia and were close to the death.
Brendan, a volunteer with the German organization Sea-Watch, recounts the April 9 incident: “It took us over half an hour to get there – a speedboat can only go so quick.
“Tragically, we arrived too late to save 17 people and nine of the people we brought to safety had seen their family members drown.
A 17-year-old had lost his 19-year-old brother. We had very serious medical cases that required immediate evacuation by helicopter and by the Italian Coast Guard.
“Seeing people drown in front of you is hard to bear, but my suffering is secondary.
“The main objective is to treat the injured and keep them alive.”
Brendan, 46, from Matlock, Derbys, has worked with refugees since 2015, first traveling to Calais to deliver donations to the camps there, before taking part in rescue missions at sea.
He was asked to join Sea-Watch last year after saving an Afghan girl from drowning off the Greek island of Lesvos.
Since then, he has taken seven annual leaves from his job as a firefighter to join the group.
Deploying larger surface vessels as well as speedboats, Sea-Watch patrols 24 miles off the coast of Libya, using radar, binoculars and information from aircraft to rescue migrants in distress.
As we currently celebrate Refugee Week, Brendan reveals the heartbreaking scenes he saw in an attempt to raise awareness.
He says: “Many people on the boats burn themselves badly from the mixture of fuel and salt water. It has a corrosive effect on the skin.
Recalling the April 9 rescue, he adds: “This time we had a man swimming in the fuel and he was covered in burns.
“The first thing to do is give these people a fresh water shower to wash away the salt water.
“Then there were people with signs of secondary drowning.
“Salt water attacks the lungs, causing foam and froth to breathe
“The situation was appalling. We need to take care of the medical issues first, make sure they are fed, watered and kept warm with blankets.
“Then you have to deal with the psychological trauma.
“I want to live in a better world than this.
“No one deserves to drown at sea.
“It’s human beings like you or me who have all been exploited in one way or another.”
The people Brendan helped save – mostly from Africa and the Middle East – were trying to get to Europe via Libya.
Brendan, who received a medal from the firemen’s union for his rescue work, says the smugglers sending them don’t care whether or not they survive the crossings.
He adds: “They almost always come without life jackets and the very few you see are fake.
“Most of those who survived in April were either good swimmers or had found a tire to hold on to.”
Under a 2017 deal, the EU is paying Libya to intercept refugee boats and return migrants to detention centers in North Africa. Since then, more than 82,000 have been intercepted.
When Brendan and his colleagues arrived at the scene of the April incident, the Libyan Coast Guard had arrived first, causing great panic among the refugees.
“It’s always worrying to hear that the Libyan Coast Guard is there because
they normally bring them home,” says Brendan.
“These people we were saving are really scared and vulnerable and in need of protection.
“They don’t choose to enter these boats lightly. They know that one in 40 people is at risk of drowning.
“A woman who had been rescued by the coastguard jumped in and tried to swim to our speedboats.
“She had almost drowned once but returned to the sea so as not to be sent back to Libya.
“Doesn’t it tell people something that the fear of refugees is real?
Brendan says that under international maritime law, the legal duty of rescuers was to take migrants to the nearest safe port – either Italy or Malta.
However, he says both countries have previously refused them entry, which happened again in this case.
“We first tried to take them to the Italian island of Lampedusa, but we weren’t allowed in.
“We then had to go further to Sicily to drop them off.
“There, they entered quarantine before being taken care of for the processing of asylum applications.
“The majority of people who go through this situation are actually granted refugee status, which shows that they have fled from something terrible.
“You don’t get that status if you haven’t been there.” In this year alone, as Home Secretary Priti Patel pushes ahead with plans to deport refugees to Rwanda – despite her thwarted initial attempts – more than 3,000 people have drowned trying to reach Europe and security.
Brendan’s experiences as a Sea-Watch volunteer lay bare the human cost of the crisis. The April incident happened during his last mission this year.
Days before he returned to the UK, another tragedy occurred when another boat sank, this time with 90 people on board.
Brendan says, “This time they were too far away for us to do anything about.
“Of those on board, only four survived.
“They had been at sea for four days. European governments are trying to create a drowning death deterrent and it is very cruel when you see it first hand.
“When you talk to a 17-year-old who asks you how to tell his mother that his teenage brother is dead, then the brutality of these policies is very clear.”
Brendan says that over the years he has spoken to thousands of people who have made these murderous journeys, but one story sticks in his mind.
It is that of Doro Goumaneh, originally from Gambia in West Africa.
He remembers: “This man had crossed the Sahara in a group of 170 but less than 100 crossed from Niger to Algeria. He then had to travel from Algeria to Libya.
“He was one of 36 to make the crossing but only 16 made it.
“He tried to get from Libya to Italy and was captured by the Libyan Coast Guard and sold to a militia by the people who caught him at sea.
“They tortured him as part of a ransom demand they forced him to make to his mother.
“These things happen all the time in Libya – and the refugees endure it all to try again.
“Most people who arrive in Europe do so on their fourth or fifth attempt.”
Brendan is now working with his Gambian friend – whom he rescued on his fourth crossing attempt in 2019 – on a memoir they are currently funding for publication. While many refugees are often demonized and labeled as ‘illegal’, Brendan says that’s just one
luck of our birth which saves Europeans from the same fate.
“When I returned to Britain in April, I walked into Italy no questions asked as we were no longer part of the EU.
“I then flew to the UK easily, in the same way that I could fly to virtually any other country in the world with my passport.
“When I arrived in Birmingham, I saw a desk that said ‘Ukrainian arrivals’.
“It was really nice to see that we welcome them and that the suffering endured by Ukrainians is taken seriously, it is exactly as it should be.
“But it raised questions in my mind: Why don’t we extend the same generous welcome to people from countries like Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan?”
“The shocking conclusion I have come to is that they are not white.”
For these dehumanizing refugees, Brendan has a simple message.
He says, “If someone spent half an hour on the Sea-Watch boat talking to people who had arrived from Libya, their perspective would change dramatically.
“Think about it. How would you like us to treat you or your loved ones if they were at risk of drowning at sea?
“If this happened to me or my children, I would want someone to save me.
“By allowing ourselves to dehumanize these people, we are dehumanizing ourselves.
“Why don’t we see them for what they are – human beings in real and present danger?
“We should just treat these people as we would want to be treated ourselves if we ever find ourselves in the same situation.”
*To donate to Sea-Watch and to learn more, visit sea-watch.org/en/donate For more information on Brendan and Doro’s book, visit unbound.com/books/doro