The Norwegian vessel that’s been deployed for rescue operations in the Mediterranean, the Siem Pilot, saved around 2,400 migrants over the weekend in an emergency situation that reportedly led to “complete chaos” on board. The vessel was on its way to Palermo Sunday, still carrying 1,093 migrants.
Most are believed to have embarked from Libya on substandard vessels and rubber boats. Pål Erik Teigen, the Norwegian police officer on board the Siem Pilot who was in charge of the rescue operation, told Norwegian news bureau NTB that he’d “never seen anything like it,” despite being involved in many such recent emergencies.
“We were preparing to transfer around 1,000 migrants from a tanker (that had rescued them from waters off Libya) when suddenly many more rubber boats showed up,” Teigen told NTB.
When the Norwegian ship, which was already full of migrants, started to sail away, around 25 people on board the rubber boats hopped into the water and began swimming after the Siem Pilot. Teigen said it all “seemed like a hopeless situation,” driven by the desperation of those involved.
Those in the water were wearing life vests and were eventually picked up. Teigen said that no one drowned, contrary to some local media reports on Sunday. Seven people were airlifted off the Siem Pilot because of health problems, though, and the tanker had transferred 17 dead bodies to the vessel.
Even though there wasn’t enough capacity on board the Siem Pilot to accommodate all the migrants, it used its smaller lifeboats to help transfer migrants from their rubber boats to other civilian vessels. Jan Erik Valen, who was in charge of security during the operation, said that panic broke out among some of the migrants.
“That led to chaos on board the tanker, as migrants fought over life vests,” Valen told NRK. He said scuffles broke out, with Norwegian police officers having to help the Siem Pilot’s crew by using shields and force to quell those who resorted to violence.
On Sunday morning, the Siem Pilot’s crew reported that there also had been a baby born on board. The mother and child were immediately evacuated and sent to the Italian island of Lampedusa for follow-up medical care.
Teigen said it has been “chaotic” on the seas off Libya, “with very many migrant boats” as the refugee crisis showed little sign of letting up. The Siem Pilot had been due to end its service in the Mediterranean last spring, but with the situation still serious, the Norwegian government extended it.
The vessel’s crew is augmented by police, defense and police intelligence personnel as part of the Frontex operation called Triton. Their assignment from Norway’s justice ministry is to help secure borders and save lives.