Ambulance boat to save lives on perilous Aegean migrant route

Greece, Syria, Turkey

April 4, 2017

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  • Volunteers in Lesvos, Greece guide refugees to their spots on the beach so they can provide them with aid when they land. All photos: Karine Aigner for Mercy Corps

A new sea ambulance donated by Mercy Corps to a Turkish search-and-rescue team will save the lives of distressed seafarers, including refugees and migrants who undertake the dangerous sea-crossing to Greece.

The state-of-the-art boat, called Yaşam, which means “life” in Turkish, became the first water-based ambulance to be owned and operated by a nongovernmental association in Turkey when Mercy Corps gifted the vessel to the Bodrum Sea Rescue Association last month with funding secured from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

Bodrum, a resort town on Turkey’s southern Aegean coast, made international headlines when the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who was fleeing Syria with his family, washed up on its shores in 2015. A devastating photograph of Aylan on the beach, seemingly in repose, shocked the world, putting an undeniable human face on one of history’s largest global migrations.

Tens of thousands of people continue to make the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe. In the first three months of 2017, nearly 28,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea, mainly in Italy, while 655 perished en route, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Of those, 3,725 people have crossed the Aegean to Greece this year, where the toll has been 13 deaths, the IOM said.

Loss of life
Despite the continued loss of life, the current toll marks a sharp decline since Turkey and the European Union implemented an agreement in 2016 to stem the flow of migrants.

A black dinghy carrying refugees is greeted by volunteer workers.

At the height of the migration crisis in 2015, when the Kurdi family made the trip, a record 1.05 million people reached Europe, mostly by sea, and 279 people died trying in the Aegean.

The gift of a rescue boat from Mercy Corps and the European Union means the Bodrum Sea Rescue Association, a civilian association staffed by volunteers, will be better prepared to respond should the number of crossings rise again during the coming warmer months as the armed conflicts in Syria and elsewhere continue to displace hundreds of thousands of people.

”This is a very special day for us because we truly are realizing a dream,” said Omer Karacalar, head of the Bodrum Sea Rescue Association, at Yaşam’s launch on March 13. “We once again see what we can achieve when we work with a civil society aid group.”

Mercy Corps has been delivering critical humanitarian assistance such as food, clothing, tents and bedding to displaced people inside Syria since late 2012 and began working with refugees in Turkey in 2014. Mercy Corps initially donated about $25,000 worth of medical gear, including special water-rescue gloves and masks, to the Bodrum Sea Association in December 2015 after learning that rescuers in the area lacked the basic equipment.

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“As the war reached more and more areas in Syria, even our team members lost their homes. That’s when we first heard about the ‘death boats,’” said Tracy Lucas, Mercy Corps’s Emergency Program Manager. “People were losing hope and heading to Europe, despite knowing the risks. Mercy Corps started working with local authorities and communities to bring local residents and refugees together and help them to access services.”

Custom-built ambulance
The custom-built, 12-meter-long boat can reach speeds of up to 40 miles an hour and can cope in rough seas and reach shallow inlets. Yaşam has space to carry up to 30 rescued people, three medical personnel and two seriously injured people.

The 500,000 euro ambulance was constructed in Finland and brought overland to Bodrum. Medical equipment was donated by area hospitals and other local organizations.

A Syrian refugee hugs an aid worker in sheer relief of making it to shore. Tears and cheers were heard as the refugees disembarked the boat.

The ceremony for the Yaşam launch was attended by the provincial governor and other local officials, as well as Jane Lewis, head of ECHO in Turkey, which provided the funds for the ambulance.

“We will never forget the terrible images of Aylan Kurdi, images of the senseless loss of life, of a desperate family fleeing war only to end in tragedy. One child, representing hundreds and thousands of others, but one child too many,” Lewis told the crowd at the ceremony.

The Kurdi family escaped Islamic State attacks on their town of Kobane in northern Syria and attempted the treacherous crossing from Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos on September 2, 2015. Aylan, his 5-year-old brother Galib and their mother Rehenna drowned, along with 10 others, when their overcrowded, inflatable raft capsized in the night in the Aegean Sea.

Volunteers like the Bodrum Sea Rescue Association were overwhelmed in the race to save thousands of people plunged into the sea from poor-quality seacraft, usually without basic safety equipment, like working life vests. The lack of an ambulance boat exacerbated the death toll.

Local partnership
Mercy Corps identified the Bodrum Sea Rescue Association, founded in 1999 and funded by private donations, as a partner to stem the loss of life in the Aegean. The association had already been fundraising for an ambulance, and Mercy Corps applied for EU funding for the boat to then gift it to the association, which now wholly owns and operates the boat, independent of Mercy Corps.

“Our work with local organizations is vital. It means that even when our projects end, assistance is still provided to those who need it,” Mercy Corps’ Lucas said.

Since 2014, Mercy Corps has collaborated with nearly 30 different local organizations in Turkey, on projects ranging from aid distribution to recreational activities.

A refugee boat filled with Syrian refugees, stranded for six hours due to engine failure, is rescued by international aid workers who rented a fishing boat in order to secure the dinghy.

“The response of Turkish citizens to the refugee crisis has been heroic,” said Sonal Shinde, Mercy Corps’ Response Team Leader. “People from all backgrounds are playing their part. This contribution of an ambulance boat will ensure that lives continue to be saved on the Aegean for years to come.”

The Bodrum Sea Rescue Association covers hundreds of miles of coastline on the Bodrum peninsula with a small team that is on call 24 hours a day, ready to set out in two minutes after a distress call, followed by a secondary crew in 15 minutes. The association is currently training 112 medical staff to be ready to respond at sea.

The Turkish Coast Guard calls out the Bodrum Sea Rescue Association when medical assistance is required or when its ships cannot maneuver in nearby shallow waters with rock-beds and unpredictable currents.

The Bodrum Sea Rescue Association is the main responder to all life-threatening, medical emergencies, such as hypothermia and resuscitation, in the area. Its divers are able to enter capsized boats, even during icy winter weather; volunteers have rescued people who have survived in air-bubbles of trapped boats up to six hours after sinking.

Yaşam will also serve the local community, including fishermen. The ambulance will only be called out during a medical emergency at sea and will not be used to intercept refugees and migrants — in accordance with Mercy Corps’ principle that migrants have the right to seek a better life elsewhere.

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