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B.C. SAR leader spent Christmas rescuing refugees attempting to cross Mediterranean

December 27, 2021

The small wooden boat held 15 people, including one pregnant woman, all soaked with sea water.

Amber Sheasgreen took a few deep breaths as her training kicked in. Leading a crew of three, she helped the refugees into a rigid-hull inflatable boat called the Mo Chara, then transported them to a larger vessel, the Sea-Eye 4.

Sheasgreen, an operations manager with the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (RCMSAR) on B.C.’s northwest coast, is using her Christmas break to work with Sea-Eye, a non-governmental organization that rescues refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.

“(It was) unbelievable to see and experience the rescue in person,” she said Thursday in an interview from the Sea-Eye 4, off the coast of Italy.

Six days after the first rescue, the organization had just received word that the boat had been granted a port of a safety in Pozzallo, Sicily. Two hundred and twenty-three refugees, including eight children, were expected to disembark the Sea-Eye 4 before Christmas to seek asylum.

“It’s a Christmas miracle,” said Sheasgreen.

While the refugee crisis in the Central Mediterranean has faded from headlines in Canada, the migration has continued, as an estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in the region in the last decade, according to a report by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. As of mid-June, 664 people had died or been reported missing in 2021.

“One of the impacts of COVID has been to make the situation for refugees around the world more precarious and more invisible,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “But while the rest of the world has been focused on COVID … the basic dynamics of the crisis have not changed at all.”

Dench said European countries have worked to prevent people from crossing from Africa and the Middle East, similar to how Canada and the United States have also tried to block entry at our borders. While they sometimes run afoul of governments, NGOs play a vital role in increasing the visibility of the crisis.

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