Grisly encounters in mission to save migrant lives in Mediterranean

Grisly encounters in mission to save migrant lives in Mediterranean
Migrants disembark in the port of Crotone, southern Italy, from the French military ship Commandant Birot after a rescue operation of 219 migrants, as part of the Frontex joint operation "Triton".

ON BOARD THE COMMANDANT BIROT - It is a job that requires a strong stomach, and not just to cope with sea conditions that can swing from balmy to billowing in the blink of an eye.

On board the French navy patrol boat the "Commandant Birot" Pierre-Antoine is a lieutenant whose recent responsibilities have included preparing the 90-strong crew for the grisly side of their mission to save migrant lives in the Mediterranean.

"We have to explain to the men that they could find themselves face-to-face with bodies in the sea, and that a body bloats, it decomposes," the officer tells AFPTV.

"If they do have to handle a corpse, we advise them to put a pillow case over the head."

The sailors are also briefed about the precautions they need to take to avoid infection during the transfer of often ailing boat people from their rickety vessels to the safety of the specially adapted "Birot".

Everyone coming aboard is screened for the high temperatures that could point to a case of the deadly Ebola virus, even though the chances of anyone carrying it are slim given the length of time that most of the migrants have been travelling for.

Often survivors are in a pitiful state of health after days at sea or hours in the water.

"People dehydrate much more quickly because they have been vomiting from sea sickness and sweating in the heat," explained Morgan, the on-board doctor. "That can quickly become a catastrophe."

Five-hour rescue

The Birot has been patrolling off North Africa since April 27 as part of an enhanced international effort to stem a deadly series of migrant boat disasters, which have claimed some 5,000 lives since the start of 2014.

Roused from their bunks by the traditional sound of a bugle, the sailors are quickly ready for action.

But on this particular day, the wake-up call is quickly followed by an announcement that, with the wind gusting at up to 30 knots, the boat is unlikely to be given a rescue mission.

"To avoid the wind, we will stay close to the Tunisian coast," explains Romaric, a watch officer.

"With a bit of luck, we could pick up survivors from the wrecks of boats that set off from Tunisia. But it is unlikely, because there are not many people leaving from there, unlike Libya."

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