Photograph by Mathieu Willcocks

Sea of Troubles

Inside the effort to rescue Europe’s unwelcome immigrants

In June, I joined the crew of the rescue ship Alan Kurdi. It was a cantankerous old brute of a boat, a former East German research vessel that now belongs to a small German nonprofit called Sea-Eye. “You are an eye on the sea,” the crew manager told us at our first briefing on board, “you are the eye of the world.” That was our mission for the voyage ahead: not only to witness but to act—to rescue as many people as we could from drowning in the central Mediterranean.

We knew that it would be an uncertain journey. Even as we set out, the captain could not tell us what port we might return to, or when we would be free to return. On its two previous missions, the ship had been stuck off the coast of Malta for more than a week while awaiting permission to disembark the rescued migrants sleeping on its deck. Other NGO crews have faced criminal charges, had their ships seized, and been refused permission to enter European harbors. The other side of the sea was even less friendly: The Libyan coast guard has threatened, boarded, and even shot at NGO ships.

In the end, we would rescue 109 people. In context the number seems small. Since the beginning of 2014, nearly 19,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Those are the ones we know of. Untallied others disappear without a trace. However much glamour its name still retains, the Mediterranean is now the deadliest border on Earth, a boundary between two worlds, one guarded for the rich, the other suffered by the poor. Its waters hide not only the bodies of thousands of missing migrants, but also the suffering they are running from: the torture camps and slave auctions of Libya, an entire economy of monetized pain subsidized by the European Union in the name of the rule of law. This is a story of that sea, and of what happens far from land when no one else is watching. It is a story of hope and extraordinary strength, but also of hypocrisies as deep and suffocating as the sea itself.

When I arrived in the small Spanish port of Burriana, NGO ships were again making headlines all over Europe. For months they had largely disappeared from the news—and from the Mediterranean—until a German rescue ship called the Sea Watch 3 defied Italian authorities by sailing, with 53 rescued migrants aboard, to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy’s far-right government was refusing to let the migrants enter the harbor, and, in an ongoing effort to criminalize sea rescue, then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini issued a decree that would allow authorities to fine NGOs as much as 50,000 euros, about $56,000, for entering Italian waters. (That figure has since been raised to one million euros.) With Sea Watch 3 stranded, the Alan Kurdi would be the only rescue ship searching the deadly waters off Libya for the entirety of my time on board. “It is not a comfortable feeling,” confided Sea-Eye’s chairman, Gorden Isler, “to be the last one.”

Nonetheless, on the evening of June 26, after days of training in the still, green waters of Burriana’s harbor, we sailed past the old fishing wharves and the last stone blocks of the breakwater. Soon the water was blue and deep, and our ship was pitching and yawing with the slightest surf. When the sun rose the next morning, the gulls that followed us from the harbor were gone, the land a low smear on the western horizon. Whatever uncertainties awaited, the crew was relieved to be going. There were 20 of us, mostly German, a mix of professional sailors and fresh-eyed volunteers. Some were clean-cut—for the first week anyway—others pierced and tattooed. One of the sailors had spent a month in a Russian prison for protesting oil drilling in the Barents Sea. Isler, round-faced and boyish, ran a small insurance firm in Hamburg. Waldemar Mischutin, our lanky, Russian-born captain, was a veteran of the Aquarius, another NGO ship that was grounded last year.

The pressure on him would be considerable. The day we left Burriana, Carola Rackete, his counterpart on the Sea Watch 3, sailed into Lampedusa’s harbor. As we sailed east, Salvini was blustering on Facebook that he would “use every legal means to put an end to this shameful situation.” He was not referring to the true shame in question here: thousands of refugees from war and famine risking their lives on the high seas, and the malign neglect of regional leaders like him that consigned their fate into the hands of makeshift and underfunded civilian rescue ships. No, Salvini was furious that rescuers continued rescuing despite his shrill insistence that they stop. It was a bit like seeing a hospital administrator throw a tantrum outside the E.R., shaking his fist at all approaching ambulances.

To understand all this properly would mean going back more than a century, when European powers began establishing colonial empires on the landmasses to the south and east and building systems for the extraction of wealth that would long outlive their makers. The empires are gone, but money and resources still flow north and west. Human beings are also heading north, pushed from their homes by the wars and immiseration that those extractive systems still reliably produce, by the cruelty and venality of their own leaders, and by changes to the climate that are already rendering swaths of the planet unlivable. This is likely an early stage, a test run of Europe’s ability to deal with the many millions who will almost certainly be forced from their homes by drought, desertification, and rising seas before the century’s end. So far, it’s not going well.

Out on the water, it was often easy to forget that the Mediterranean is an enormous graveyard. At dusk and dawn, the sea went opaque and almost milky, its surface reflecting the changing color of the sky. Sometimes dolphins chased us—they were faster—arcing triumphantly into the air beside the bow. The sea, smooth and furrowed like the skin of some great beast, seemed to swell and breathe, at turns generous and cruel. In a single week in April 2015, the Mediterranean took more than 1,200 people’s lives. Italy, which had single-handedly rescued more than 100,000 migrants in just twelve months, had shut down its search and rescue operations because the EU refused to chip in. The EU’s own efforts, focused more on “border control” than on saving lives, were worse than inadequate, so civilians began to step in. That May, a group of German investors who had bought an old fishing boat and refurbished it as a rescue ship, dispatched it to the Mediterranean. They named it Sea Watch. Others followed, among them Michael Buschheuer, another German businessman who, moved by photos of the drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, founded Sea-Eye that same fall. Larger, established charities—Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children—launched ships of their own.

For a little while, as many as twelve NGO boats were patrolling the central Mediterranean. By November 2016, they were responsible for nearly half the rescues in the sea. In the capitals of Europe, though, politicians were seeking a different solution. Earlier that year, the EU effectively closed migrant routes across the eastern Mediterranean by outsourcing enforcement: For a few billion euros and some political perks, Turkey agreed to prevent refugees from crossing into Europe. Libya, the main launching point in the central Mediterranean, was in the middle of a disastrous civil war, but EU bureaucrats were confident that with sufficient “capacity building” European border controls could be similarly “externalized,” and the flow of migrants contained on African shores.

Volunteers from the Alan Kurdi conducted a lifeboat training exercise earlier this summer.Fabian Heinz/Sea-Eye

For more than a year after his election in 2018, Salvini was happy to hold the spotlight, taking the credit and the blame for Europe’s inhospitality to migrants. (He would be shoved from power in a failed bit of political brinksmanship in August.) In truth, however, Italy’s migration policies antedate Salvini by at least two years, and represent an ugly consensus generally if more quietly shared by many powers in the EU. Europe’s current strategy was implemented by Salvini’s predecessor, Marco Minniti of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, with the active support of Germany’s center-right Christian Democrats. The idea was not to solve Europe’s “migrant crisis,” but to disappear it, and with it, perhaps, the electoral threat posed to the political center by the populist right. In February 2017—three days after a report from the German Embassy in Niger documented widespread torture, rapes, executions, and “concentration camp-like conditions” in the detention centers in which Libya confines migrants—Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya’s Government of National Accord to “individuate urgent solutions to the irregular migrants matter.” While the meaning of this dictate is all but unintelligible, the practical impact of the accord was immediately clear: Italy and the EU would soon begin transferring tens of millions of euros to Libya in order to shift responsibility for the migrant crisis to an unstable and barely functional regime with a horrible record of immigrant detention.

The NGOs, still carrying migrants to European ports—and bearing witness to a humanitarian disaster that had not lessened in scope—stood in the way of this untidy solution. In 2017, the interior ministers of Austria and Germany and the French chief of frontex, the EU’s combined coast guard and border patrol, accused rescue ship crews of colluding with smugglers. They offered no serious evidence, but the narrative took hold in shortsighted media reports. That August, a Sicilian prosecutor ordered the seizure of the rescue boat Iuventa, accusing its crew of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.” Within a year, prosecutors in Italy and in Malta had opened criminal investigations against the crews of eight NGO vessels. None have resulted in convictions, but ships have been held in French and Spanish harbors as well as in Italy and Malta. In the meantime, the centrists’ gamble failed: The populist right coasted into office in Italy last June. Salvini’s first act was to close Italy’s ports to NGO ships. Now Salvini is out again and the Democrats are back, this time in alliance with the Five Star Movement, which is only mildly less coherent in its nativist rhetoric than Salvini’s Lega party. In September, the new government began allowing NGO ships to dock in Lampedusa, but the deal with Libya remains intact.


Slowly, the Alan Kurdi chugged east, rudder shaft whining, the engine beating a steady thrum. For days the water was spookily flat, its surface almost silky. The sea and sky were the same shade of blue, the horizon an almost imperceptible smudge of yellow haze. The warming Arctic had knocked the jet stream wonky again, sucking superheated air north from the Sahara. It was hot on deck and hotter in the nearly airless cabins. In France, temperatures reached 113. Things were heating up in Lampedusa, too. The Sea Watch 3’s captain, Carola Rackete, had still not been allowed to dock. In the early hours of June 29, she sailed to the pier, colliding on the way with a small police boat that attempted to block her path. Rackete was arrested, the boat seized. “Mission accomplished,” Salvini had tweeted.

By late morning, a white flag—a bedsheet really—painted “#freecarola” flew from the Alan Kurdi’s mast. Arched-wing shearwaters, migrants just as we are, glided low above the waves. Come fall, they would fly as far as Brazil. They were much faster than us: The ship’s cruising speed was about 7.6 knots, not quite nine miles per hour. “We are jogging to Libya,” joked the ship’s volunteer cook. It would take four days to reach our destination, the recently designated Libyan search and rescue, or SAR, zone. Millions of the EU’s capacity-building euros went to constructing the fiction that Libya, despite an ongoing civil war and the documented involvement of its coast guard in human smuggling and sundry other crimes, has the institutional infrastructure necessary to coordinate search and rescue operations. Last June, the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) officially recognized Libya’s SAR zone. On paper at least, Libya has a Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), too. Our plan was to cruise as close to Libyan shores as we could get without risking a confrontation with the coast guard.

In the middle of the sea, the sky cloudless and the horizon open in all directions, there was a clarity that can be hard to find on land. Disregarding whatever moral convolutions people were twisting themselves into on the continents, we stayed absorbed in practical details: how best to communicate with one another and with any migrants we might find, how to approach their boat with ours—we had two small, fast rigid-hulled inflatable boats, or RHIBS, for that purpose—how to lift the injured or unconscious from the RHIBS into the ship, how to deal with the dead. Most days, we paused to train in the open sea. From the RHIB, the Alan Kurdi looked impossibly solitary and small. Somewhere in another dimension, people were demonstrating in the streets of Amsterdam and Berlin in solidarity with Carola Rackete. Somewhere else, Salvini was hunched over his mobile device of choice, banging out fresh threats. On the Alan Kurdi, the engine chugged on, steady and determined, racing slowly toward our goal.

One evening, I found the quartermaster smoking by the rail, a strange half-smile on her face as she stared at the glow where the sun had been. Salvini just posted about us, she said. And indeed: The Alan Kurdi and the Spanish NGO ship Open Arms, Salvini wrote on Facebook, “appear to be approaching Libya.” (Open Arms, forbidden by the ostensibly left-wing Spanish government from entering the Libyan SAR zone, would in fact not get close until August, when it rescued 124 people and spent 20 days idling off Lampedusa until an Italian judge ordered its passengers ashore.) The rest of his message was a warning addressed directly to us: “you already understand how it works in Italy, where there is finally a government that makes its laws respected. We won’t be played for fools.”

We had other worries. The day after we crossed into the waters off Libya, I checked in at the bridge before the sun was up, coffee pot in hand, ready to climb to the highest deck to start a shift on lookout duty. The first mate had disturbing news. At a little after midnight, an email had come in from an activist network that operates an emergency hotline for migrants. A man had called from a rubber boat with 60 people aboard that had launched two hours earlier from the Libyan port of Zawiya. He could still see the lights of the coast, he said, but it was too far to swim, and the boat was already deflating. He had no data signal and could send no GPS coordinate. Falling into the hands of the Libyan coast guard would mean a return to the prisons in Libya, and to the hunger and abuse that he’d likely already experienced there, but the caller was desperate enough to request steerage back to Libya. The boat, he said, was taking on water.

When the message arrived, the Alan Kurdi was too far from Zawiya to get there in time. All night, the Libyan coast guard’s phones had gone unanswered. The man on the boat had also left his cell phone number. No one had tried it, so I did. He didn’t answer. I called three times, and each time heard a recorded message in Arabic saying that the number I had dialed could not be reached. We would learn nothing more about the boat, or the fate of the people on it.

More bad news arrived that afternoon. Khalifa Haftar’s National Liberation Army, which had been fighting the so-called Government of National Accord for control of Tripoli since April, had bombed a migrant detention center east of the capital, a vast hangar in which 600 people were confined. At least 53 died. The U.N. later reported that guards had fired on migrants attempting to escape the carnage. But there was some good news, too: A Sicilian judge ruled that Carola Rackete had broken no law and should be immediately released. It was a major victory, but no one felt like celebrating. At dinner that night, the mess was silent save for the clatter of forks on plates.

Later we learned that fishermen had just pulled four men out of the water off the eastern coast of Tunisia. One died in the hospital. They had been on a boat with 82 others, they said. It had begun to leak shortly after they launched—not from Zawiya, but another Libyan town about 40 miles farther west. The 82 others were presumed to have drowned.

Rescued refugees sleep in a supply container on the Alan Kurdi’s deck. Nick Jaussi

It was not yet 6 a.m. on July 5 when the one other journalist on board shouted my name from the far side of the deck. (Because we were otherwise basically useless, the powers that be had assigned us to the earliest lookout shift.) I ran over, raised the binoculars to my eyes, and looked where she was looking. Eventually I saw it: a stubborn speck that appeared to be floating on the fine line of the horizon, disappearing and then reappearing again. The speck became a dot, the dot became a dash, and the dash, unmistakably, a boat: silhouetted human forms crowded on a rubber dinghy.Soon the ship’s bell was ringing. We raced to lower the RHIBS into the water and load them up with life vests. The first one came back with ten people aboard. A twelve-year-old boy in a red-and-white striped t-shirt bounded up the ladder onto the deck. He was grinning. Next was the one woman among them. She was too weak to climb up without help. The rest were very young and terribly thin. The RHIB sped off to pick up ten more, and ten more after that. In the end, there were 65 of them, 39 from Somalia, the rest from assorted points farther south and west: Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Benin. More than half were in their teens. One man from Cameroon wore thin, black socks. The others were all barefoot.

The boat that had carried them was perhaps 30 feet long, with a 40-horsepower motor on the transom. It didn’t look much sturdier than a pool float. Inside it were all the supplies the migrants had for the journey to Lampedusa: a single life jacket, ten plastic containers of gasoline, a little water, and no food.

In the chart room, Isler sat hunched over a laptop, his t-shirt dark with sweat. He was emailing the maritime authorities in Tripoli to ask for a safe harbor. He had to go through the motions. On deck, our guests guzzled bottles of water. A couple asked me if we were in international waters. I assured them that they had made it out of Libya. They fell quickly asleep on the bare deck, lying on their sides like spoons in a drawer.

Hours passed, and Isler got no response. Mischutin tried to reach the Libyan coast guard by radio and then by phone. Finally, he called the cell phone number, which the German Foreign Office had given Isler, of a Libyan coast guard commander. “Zawiya is a safe harbor,” the commander said, and instructed him to radio the harbor master and ask for a Captain Ramzi, the head of the local coast guard. Zawiya is in fact a major center of human trafficking and the site of a notorious detention facility in which migrants are systematically tortured and starved. In 2017, the U.N. leveled sanctions against the head of the Libyan coast guard unit there for his involvement in fuel smuggling, human trafficking, and “the sinking of migrant boats using firearms.” Tunisia has no functioning asylum system, so Mischutin set a course for Lampedusa.

Before the day was out, Salvini had told la Repubblica that we would not be welcome. “They’re not coming to Italy,” he said. When we arrived outside Italian waters the next morning, he made it official. A patrol boat from the Guardia di Finanza, which polices immigration as well as strictly financial matters, tied up alongside the Alan Kurdi. It was not yet 7 and already sweltering. Two officers came aboard, pistols holstered on their hips. They looked uncomfortable: not just hot but embarrassed by their task. They presented Mischutin with a letter signed by Salvini and two other government ministers informing him that the Alan Kurdi was banned from “entry, transit, and parking … in the national territorial sea.”

Our new passengers watched the Italians come and go with quiet curiosity. “They don’t want us?” a young man named Ashkar asked me. He was tall and thin, with tired eyes and an easy, languid effect. He had left southern Somalia in 2015, he told me, and two years later had crossed from Egypt into Libya. A shadow crossed his features when he pronounced the country’s name. He told me instead about how they had gathered on the beach in Zawiya two days earlier. Ashkar had paid the smugglers $1,500. A brother in the United States had sent the money. (I asked what his brother said about America. He laughed. “So comfortable,” he said.) Even with the seas calm, he said, the boat began taking on water. They mopped it up with a towel and wrung it out over the side. Some of them were seasick. All were scared. No one slept.

Two green-and-white fishing boats sailed past, their names painted on their bows in Arabic. Nearly everyone on deck rushed to the rail for a better look—so many that the ship began to list. They were afraid, Ashkar explained, that it might be the Libyan coast guard. He and the other men around him—the man from Cameroon with the socks, whose name was Martial, and a sad-eyed Nigerian named Endurance—began to talk about the years they had spent in Libya: two for Martial and Ashkar, four for Endurance, who was well named. He had lost his entire family, he told me, to Boko Haram.

They described a network of official and unofficial prisons, lawless cities run by competing militias, a country where everyone carried weapons and no one cared if someone shot a black man in the street, or kidnapped you at gunpoint. In the prisons, Ashkar said, “they put you in a room and don’t feed you. They beat you. They give you a phone to call your family. They give you an amount, $10,000, $5,000.” Your mother or your sister hears you begging as they torture you—whipping you with ropes, beating you with rods, hoses, fists—and your family, or your whole community, no matter how poor, raises what they can. If you can pay, and you’re lucky, they release you, often only to be abducted again by the same gang that let you go. It’s a business, Martial said. If you can’t pay, “they sell you”—to another militia, or to civilians, as a slave. Ashkar’s family paid his captors $8,000, he said, twice.

Nothing about this is secret. The kidnapping syndicates and the rings of extortion surrounding them have been extensively documented by the U.N., human rights groups, and journalists. European migration policies have turned slavery, extortion, monetized torture—and for women, systematized rape—into a thriving economy valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In coastal towns like Zawiya, traffickers profit on both ends: The EU spends tens of millions of euros on “capacity building, training, and assistance with infrastructure improvements” for detention centers and “institutional strengthening” for the Libyan coast guard, which is controlled by the same militias that run the prisons. Members of the Libyan coast guard also work in concert with the very smuggling operations the EU has entrusted it to shut down.

A South Sudanese man named Mubarak told me of a previous attempt to cross the sea. The engine on his boat quit after six hours. With 107 people on board, the rubber craft drifted for two nights before the Libyan coast guard found it. They fired at the boat, deflating it and scattering its passengers into the water. Many couldn’t swim, Mubarak said. “Many people died.” The coast guard delivered the survivors to the prisons. More died there of mistreatment, hunger, and disease.

Most of our passengers’ limbs and torsos were crisscrossed with scars. The ship’s doctors told me that some appeared to have been brutally whipped, their backs a mess of scar tissue. Later, Ashkar would help me translate for a shy kid named Anwar, bone thin like most of the others, with wide eyes in a long and acne-sprinkled face. He was 15. His family in Mogadishu had been too poor to pay school fees, he said, or for anything else. He was 13 and shining shoes when he decided to leave on his own. He crossed through Ethiopia to Sudan and over the border to Libya, where he was confined for months, he said, in the basement of a private house. He and 70 or 80 others were held in a dark underground room. Their captors tortured them with electric shock, demanding impossible sums, tens of thousands of dollars. Ashkar, who had been similarly abused, demonstrated. “Four guys hold you like this, they put the wire on your foot like this: ‘Where is the money? Where is the money?’”

Anwar managed to escape, and had to escape another prison after that. He found work in the fields and was able to save enough money for a spot on the boat on which we found him. I told him that he was very strong. He smiled, bashful, suddenly a kid again. “If you don’t have anything,” he explained, “you will take any risk.” Then he pointed to the discolorations that speckled his thighs, and pronounced the only English word I heard him speak. “Underground,” he said, and said the word again.

And yet they sang. The guitar, missing a string, had been sitting unused in the ship’s mess until the boatswain brought it out on deck. Mahad, the oldest of the Somalis—he said he was 24 but looked closer to 40—picked it up, bent a twist-tie into a pick and started strumming. More than a dozen Somalis gathered in a circle around him, resting their arms on one another’s shoulders and knees, smiling now, clapping and singing along as Mahad led them through song after song. They all knew the words. They were love songs, Mahad explained—“lovely songs,” he called them—and made a face: “‘I miss you, baby,’ ‘I love you forever,’” that kind of thing. For a while Ashkar joined them, free-styling in Arabic while Mahad banged out a beat on the frets. I understood enough to know that he was rapping about the journey they had taken, about prison and the beach in Zawiya and the arrival of the Alan Kurdi.

Later, Mahad penned “Sea Eye” on his forehead with a marker, but his brow wrinkled when he smiled, so you could only read it if he made a very serious face. He and two others inked hearts and the words “I like Alan Kurdi” on their shirts. Another boy penned a longer message in blue marker, just beneath the Tommy Hilfiger logo on his shirt: “One day,” he wrote, “everything will be OK.”

A volunteer helps a three-year-old boy from Syria on board the Alan Kurdi; he was rescued together with his parents and his younger sister. Fabian Heinz/Sea-Eye


That afternoon, Mischutin set a course toward Malta. The Italians surely wouldn’t budge, and he and Isler had no desire to press the point that Carola Rackete had already so elegantly made, or to risk losing the Alan Kurdi, which would leave precisely zero rescue ships in the Libyan SAR zone, with more migrant boats launching each day. Malta did not look promising. Their most recent communication, Isler said, was “not exactly a yes.” It was, indeed, more of a no: “Please be informed,” Malta’s RCC had warned, “that Malta has no obligation to assign you with a place of safety.” As we got closer, they emailed again, in capitals this time: “there is no authority to enter malta.”

We sailed through the night, our guests stretched out in blankets on the deck, the Milky Way swirling above. We were just outside Maltese waters by the next afternoon, but one 16-year-old boy hadn’t gotten up that morning. He was skeletally thin, and too weak to stand without help. Another, also 16 and no stouter, was complaining of severe pain from a swollen tumor on his chest, and the sole woman among our passengers, who the day before had appeared to be gaining strength, was vomiting blood. (The ship’s medical staff told me that her torso was so disfigured with scars that she had been ashamed to undress even in the company of a female doctor.) Mischutin contacted Malta’s RCC to request a medical evacuation.

The RCC responded that they would not perform a medivac unless we sailed to a coordinate seven hours farther away from Malta. Unhappily, Mischutin headed north. The news came on the way: Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had reached an agreement with the European Commission. Malta would bring all 65 rescued migrants ashore, but other EU states would take them in. No one had expected it to happen so fast. Isler conjectured that we had Carola Rackete to thank—and that Muscat, less fond of headlines than Salvini, didn’t want to risk a repeat of her standoff in Lampedusa.

When Mischutin made the announcement, the deck erupted in rejoicing. Everyone was jumping, hugging, shouting, picking up crew members and hoisting them up on their shoulders. The Somalis formed a circle, clapping and singing, Mahad leading them from one triumphant song to another. Even Anwar joined in. Then, just as abruptly, a few minutes before the Maltese patrol boat appeared in the distance, the revelry ceased. The refugees tidied the deck, folded the blankets on which they had slept, and brushed their teeth in unison over the starboard rail. Who knew when they would have the luxury of toothpaste again?

When the Maltese tied up along aside us, the migrants’ faces went tense as they studied the Maltese sailors in their black shorts and blue vinyl gloves. They were nervous still, but smiling again as they climbed from deck to deck, reaching over one another’s shoulders and shaking every last hand they could. We watched them wave goodbye until they were too far away to see.


Late the next morning, we had not even made it back to the Libyan SAR zone when Mischutin overheard a call on the radio. In Arabic-accented Italian, a fisherman was telling the coast guard in Lampedusa that he had found a drifting wooden boat packed with people, and that there were women and children aboard. The Italians weren’t saying much back, and the fisherman was getting angry. “Do they have to die?” he kept saying.

Mischutin got on the radio, asked the fisherman for his coordinates and told him we would be there, but that it would take us seven hours—everything on the Alan Kurdi seemed to take seven hours. Finally, an Italian coast guard officer could be heard telling the fisherman that his boat was in the Maltese SAR zone. “Did you call the Maltese?” he asked.

The fisherman assured Mischutin that he would give the migrants a sea anchor to keep them from drifting, and would stay close until we arrived. The Italians had been right: The coordinates put the wooden boat inside Malta’s rescue zone, so Isler emailed the Maltese RCC. They did not seem pleased to hear from him again. They would send a boat—an “asset” they called it—they wrote, and warned, “You are to refrain from taking any actions prior to receiving any instructions from RCC Malta.”

But no instructions were forthcoming, and we were already on our way. Over the next six hours, emails and radio calls flew back and forth: the Maltese authorities refusing to give the Alan Kurdi permission to do anything, assigning responsibility for the rescue instead to a passing cargo ship with no rescue capabilities, insisting that their “asset” would be there. In the end, the cargo ship’s captain let the Alan Kurdi take charge. It was after seven when the first RHIB returned with eight people on board: four women, three children—aged five, three, and 18 months—and the children’s father. The kids were crying. So was their dad. He was Syrian and badly sunburned, his blue eyes rimmed with red. As soon as he sat, he began shaking with anguish, not yet ready to believe that he and his family were safe, that he would not have to watch his children die. We gave them water and granola bars. They ate hungrily. The RHIB came back with another load, all men this time. Two of them dropped to their knees, bowing in prayer as soon as they stepped onto the deck. The Syrian father clutched his children in his lap, his wife leaning against him, fussing with the kids. They were talking now and even smiling at one another, then hugging and falling again into tears.

By 8 p.m. all 44 passengers were on board the Alan Kurdi. More than half were from Pakistan, the rest from Guinea, Libya, and Syria. They told me that they had left the Libyan town of Zuwara three days earlier—some said four—and after twelve hours had run out of fuel. They drifted through that day and the next one. “We think that we are all dead,” a young Pakistani named Jibran told me. A few started drinking seawater. The fisherman who found them, Jibran said, gave them what water and food he could spare.

We waited. The rescue boat did not arrive from Malta. Instead, nine hours after the RCC had promised to dispatch it, the Maltese sent an angry email ordering Mischutin to sail northeast, toward Malta, scolding him for taking “unilateral actions without prior consultation,” and warning that if he again failed to “abide by instructions,” they would not coordinate with the Alan Kurdi in future rescues. In this case, abiding by their instructions would likely have meant letting 44 people die. (Malta’s RCC, prime minister’s office, and Department of Information did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)

We sailed northeast as ordered; in the end, we sailed all night. At 7:38 the next morning, Malta’s RCC emailed a coordinate about 45 minutes ahead of us, where Mischutin was instructed to rendezvous “with a Maltese Patrol Craft and transfer all the migrants.” Ten minutes after we arrived there, another email came with a new coordinate five hours farther to the northeast. It went on like that. Three hours later, they sent a new coordinate; an hour and 20 minutes later, another one; and another 25 minutes after that.

In the meantime, I spoke with the Syrian family. Only Shadi, the father, was Syrian, it turned out. His wife, Nuha, was Palestinian. Shadi had fled Idlib in 2012. In the Libyan city of Misrata, he met Nuha, who had herself fled there from Gaza. They married and started a family. When the civil war flared up again in April, Shadi, a welder, carried on working, living as normally as he could until about a month ago, when a man he described as a gangster came to his door. The men with him wore uniforms, he said, “but they are not police, they are gangsters.” They put a gun to the head of his daughter, Leila, the five-year-old, while they searched the house. They took Nuha’s jewelry and all the money he had stashed. Shadi understood that they could not be safe in Libya. He sold his car, the house, everything, and paid a smuggler $2,000. He teared up again recalling the hours they had spent drifting and his certainty that his children would die. Reaching the deck of the Alan Kurdi, he said, “was like a new life.”

At 1:55 p.m., 25-and-a-half hours after the Maltese authorities had promised to dispatch a rescue vessel, one appeared alongside the Alan Kurdi. Its sailors wore white hazmat suits and masks, as if they had been sent to Chernobyl. They took baby Yusuf first, belted into a life jacket bigger than he was. Shadi passed them three-year-old Mustafa, his little brown sandals on the wrong feet. Nuha crossed over, then Shadi, then a cousin carrying little Leila, then all the other adults, one by one. No deal had been made with the European Commission this time. The migrants would stay in Malta, where they would likely be detained for at least the first week. If they apply for asylum, they will spend months if not years awaiting a final decision, living in overcrowded reception centers under conditions that one local NGO has described as “deplorable.” The Libyans and Syrians will likely be allowed to stay. Most of the Pakistanis will not.

That night, after dinner, Isler announced that we would not return to the SAR zone. “This mission is finished,” he said. The crew took the news in silence. Everyone knew what it meant: There would be no one else out there. In our absence, more people would very likely die. We had been lucky, Isler explained. We had expected to make a single rescue and then to wait for days or weeks off Lampedusa or Malta. Instead we had made two rescues, and saved 109 people. We were all more exhausted than any of us wanted to admit. A new crew would replace us in a week. We would be foolish to push our luck further.


Four days later, I slept in, until nearly 8, and brought my coffee out onto the deck. There were gulls above the ship again, and Styrofoam floating past on the sea. We were near land. On the horizon, I could make out Mallorca, where we would disembark that afternoon. We sailed past the island of Cabrera, which is uninhabited now, but in the early sixteenth century served as a base for the Ottoman admiral Heyreddin Barbarossa, who ferried tens of thousands of Muslim refugees fleeing Spain across the sea to what is now Algeria. On one of the long, quiet days of our return journey, I had read about the discovery, in a Greek cave, of a human cranium that was dated to 210,000 years ago, about 140,000 years earlier than scientists had until recently believed that humans first emigrated from Africa. People—real people, like you and me, with hard skulls and hearts that pump blood and all the love, fear, and courage that come with it—have been crossing this sea for a very long time, long before the birth of the nation state and before what we now call “Europe” understood itself as something distinct, except in the crudest geographical sense, from Africa or Asia. More will come, many more, and they will judge us as we judge those who came before us.

The morning haze was clearing. It was a perfect Saturday for the sailboats cruising beneath the cliffs of Mallorca. In Palma, we docked beside a cruise ship. Two others just like it were moored there, too. The closest one was 14 stories high and as long from stern to bow as four New York City blocks. I counted 16 lifeboats on its sides, each one capable of carrying 440 people to safety. A few passengers smoked on the terraces outside their cabins, gazing down in boredom as we docked. From the pier, we could see the water slide on the cruise ship’s top deck. Every minute or two, someone else shot past through the chute above us, arms stretched to the future, and disappeared out of sight.