British captain honoured for rescuing 907 refugees in Mediterranean

Captain Jamie Wilson's crew found two dead children during harrowing rescue operations 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 03 October 2017 17:25 BST
Captain Jamie Wilson has been honoured for rescuing 907 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea
Captain Jamie Wilson has been honoured for rescuing 907 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea (Deep Ocean)

A British sailor has been honoured for helping rescue more than 900 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea.

Jamie Wilson is the captain of a commercial ship that was checking a pipeline off the coast of Libya when it was drafted to rescue nine overcrowded migrant dinghies over a gruelling five days.

Neither he nor his ship’s crew had any previous experience of search and rescue work but Captain Wilson said he was compelled to respond to the “unprecedented” crisis.

His British-flagged ship, the Deep Vision, was sailing off the coast of Libya on 28 January when it received a call from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome ordering it to sail to a boat in distress.

The crew arrived to find an overloaded migrant dinghy with 132 people on board, including two pregnant women.

Captain Wilson, who is originally from Falkirk in Scotland, launched a rescue boat and distributed life jackets, before helping transfer the asylum seekers to a French navy ship that took them to safety in Italy.

But during the rescue, his crew found the bodies of two children under a blanket.

Migrants wait to be rescued by the Italian coast guard in the Mediterranean Sea, 30 nautical miles from the Libyan coast
Migrants wait to be rescued by the Italian coast guard in the Mediterranean Sea, 30 nautical miles from the Libyan coast (Getty)

Captain Wilson said the incident had a “huge emotional impact”, with sailors later undergoing counselling.

“As a master, the hard part is lifting the spirits of the crew after such events and returning to our normal and familiar work routines,” he added.

“The migrant situation in the Mediterranean is sad and heart-wrenching.

“In some cases, the migrant rafts had run out of fuel, drifting aimlessly and hoping to be found. Others had no engines at all and had been towed out beyond 12nm and left to drift, again in the hope of being found.”

Just a day after the tragic rescue, another migrant dinghy was spotted on radar heading towards the Deep Vision, which found 125 people crammed on board.

The crew distributed food, water and life jackets and kept those on board safe while waiting three hours for a humanitarian ship to arrive, which took them to Italy.

Then in the early hours of 31 January, another refugee boat was spotted next to the Deep Vision, which transferred the migrants to an Italian coastguard ship.

Italian coastguard rescues refugee boat from Libya in the Mediterranean

The next day, Captain Wilson’s crew spotted and rescue six refugee dinghies in just five hours, transferring 650 men, women and children to safety – bringing the total rescued to 907.

The sailor said he and his crew had been briefed for potential rescues on the passage between Libya and Italy, which is the busiest and deadliest sea route to Europe for refugees.

But Captain Wilson said the number of rescues was “unprecedented”, adding: “The sheer scale of events and number of migrants were experiences took us by surprise.”

Although his ship was working on a commercial charter, the 36-year-old said the laws of the sea require captains to assist any vessel at risk of being lost and anyone in distress.

“I am proud of the efforts of the Deep Vision crew in what were very difficult and emotional circumstances,” Captain Wilson added.

He has been recognised by the Shipwrecked Mariners' Society at its annual Skill and Gallantry Awards.

Commodore Malcolm Williams, chief executive of the society, said: “Captain Wilson led his crew with immense dedication and professionalism, exercising high standards of seamanship and upholding the finest traditions of the sea in going to the aid of those in danger.”

He has separately been honoured for his efforts with the Government’s Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service for “for services to the rescue of refugees in peril”.

More than 2,600 migrants have died so far this year while attempting treacherous boat crossings to Europe, with the vast majority drowning, suffocating or freezing to death between Libya and Italy.

People smugglers have exploited widespread lawlessness in the ongoing Libyan civil war to set up a profitable operation seeing migrants kidnapped and ferried from southern borders to the Mediterranean coast, frequently being ransomed, tortured or forced into labour and prostitution on the way.

The Italian government has been leading European initiatives to equip, train and fund increased patrols by the Libyan coastguard, which itself stands accused of killing and abusing refugees, to prevent boats from entering international waters.

Some NGOs halted rescue operations over the summer because of threats from Libyan forces, while one had its boat seized by Italian prosecutors over alleged collusion with smugglers, which the charity denies.

There have been fears that a sharp drop in the number of migrants fleeing Libya could have been enforced by militias, leaving thousands trapped, after the Italian interior minister offered local tribes and Libyan mayors incentives to stem the flow of asylum seekers.

Fighting in the ongoing war has recently reached the smuggling hub of Sabratha, where at least five civilians were killed on Monday and a hospital was partly disabled by shelling.

The clashes have pitted the Anas al-Dabbashi brigade, an armed group previously known for migrant smuggling, against the Operations Room to combat the Islamic State, which formed last year to oust jihadists from the area.

Fighting broke out when a Dabbashi brigade member was shot dead at a checkpoint, but the militia’s leader claimed the underlying cause was the group's move to stop the departure of migrant boats following Italy’s deal with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

The Central Mediterranean has become both the deadliest and busiest sea route to Europe following the EU-Turkey deal, which dramatically reduced crossings from the Turkish coast by seeing all asylum seekers arriving on Greek islands detained from March last year.

Another 138 men, women and children have died attempting to reach Spain, mostly from Morocco.

Almost 137,300 migrants have survived crossings to Europe in 2017, according to UN figures, mostly coming from Nigeria, Syria, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan African nations.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in