But their mission has become harder, facing headwinds of hostility from EU countries like Italy and Malta, both of which on Friday said their ports would closed to the NGO ships for the entire summer.
The Aquarius, operated by French NGO SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), arrived Friday at Marseille after 10 days at sea without having had a single opportunity to save lives, something they have done hundreds of times since launching their mission in 2016.
Dozens of migrants however were rescued this week off the coast of Libya, but without help from Aquarius.
The NGO ship was kept to the sidelines by the Libyan coastguards, which are now nearly alone in carrying out rescue operations off the North African coastline.
So the Aquarius pulled into Marseille for a “technical” stopover, where the crew on Friday told AFP of past operations at sea and the situations the rescuers faced day after day.
Ivorian midwife Amoin Soulemane poses in the midwife clinic of the Aquarius rescue vessel last week. Photo: PAU BARRENA / AFP
'Fear in their eyes'
“I remember when we had a critical rescue for almost 200 people. There was finally around 600 people on board,” recalled Jeremie Demange, a young French rescuer. “That night, you could see the fear in those eyes, because we all were going to die. That was their assessment.
“We were facing waves of 4-5 metres, it was huge for this boat and these people never had seen the sea. They were traumatised… I realised I was traumatised too.”
Dragos Nicolae from Romania was also part of the rescue team that unforgettable night in January.
“It sticks with me. People were in the water already,” he recalled. Then he saw a young woman lying on the bottom of a dinghy she had taken from North Africa in hopes of reaching a better life in Europe.
“She was like in a casual position and I thought she was resting or sleeping. Hoping she would move. After some minutes, I turned back again and she actually didn't move because she was dead.
“She was a beautiful 24-year-old. She left her child, an eight-month-old baby.”
There were around seven other babies in that rescue who needed CPR and lots of sick people.
“It was total chaos,” Nicolae said, adding that in all three women died.
Still most of the migrants were rescued. “Of course,” he added, “we know a lot of them were missing, We never found them.”
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nurse and medical focal point member Tim Harrison in the hospital room on the Aquarius rescue vessel, chartered by French NGO SOS-Mediterranee and MSF. Photo: PAU BARRENA / AFP
After nine months on board, American nurse Tim Harrison with Doctors without Borders (MSF) said one incident he will never forget was “pulling a drowned man out of the sea.”
“We saved his life and he is alive and working today, somewhere in this world, hopefully, still.”
Others also recalled some moments of joy. Ivorian midwife Amoin Soulemane said she would remember forever assisting at her first childbirth on board Aquarius for “the little Miracle”.
“Miracle is the given name of this baby. His mother crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Libya with a rubber boat. She was rescued by the SOS NGO. After, I took care of this mother… it was really beautiful.”
But on Friday as the European Union announced it had reached a new deal on migration, part of which is to stop people from leaving Libya, three babies died in a Mediterranean migrant shipwreck in which survivors say 100 people are still missing.
American doctor David Beversluis of MSF pictured on the Aquarius rescue vessel last week. Photo: PAU BARRENA / AFP