EUROPE'S FORGOTTEN
GRAVEYARD

DOCUMENTARY

"A dead person at sea is only dead when someone can report it." 

– Marc Reig, Captain of Open Arms Mission 78

The Mediterranean Sea has become an unmarked grave for thousand of migrants who drowned during their attempt to reach Europe, pushed by war, persecution and poverty.

Open Arms is a Spanish NGO that rescues asylum seekers in distress as they attempt the treacherous boat journey to Europe. Since its foundation in 2015, they have rescued over 60,000 refugees. But nothing prepared it for the events that unfolded on November 11th, 2020

In November 2020, I joined the Open Arms crew on one of their deadliest missions to date. The result is the following 23 min documentary and photographs depicting the inhuman and hidden reality that occurs every day in the Mediterranean.

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TITLE: Europe's Forgotten Graveyard
MY ROLE: Director / Cameraman / Writer 

TIME OF YOUR LIFE REQUIRED: 23 min
KEYWORDS: #migration #openarms #unjustice #europe #NGO


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Despite the legal obligation to assist people in distress at sea, governments and merchant ships often turn a blind eye on calls for helps when it comes from migrants.

Therefore, NGO’s like Open Arms stepped in to fill the gap left by politicians and institutions. But their work is ever more complicated as several EU member states began prosecuting rescue NGOs, accusing them of aiding human trafficking.

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FIRST OFFICER RICARDO BARRIUSO SCANS THE HORIZON IN SEARCH FOR MIGRANTS MAKESHIFT BOATS IN DISTRESS.

Only one rescue ship.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse for humanitarian ships, with countries closing their ports. As a result, ​at the time I boarded mission #78, Open Arms was the only rescue vessel operating​ in the Mediterranean.

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Half of the crew are volunteers, yet all are highly skilled professionals; experienced sailors, lifeguards, medics, who believe that no one should be left drowning at sea.

United as as a Formula One team, the engine department of the Open Arms worked around the clock for more than 72h to fix an electrical engine failure that prevented the ship to leave and save lives.

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Limited ressources.

The Open Arms is an emergency tow vessel of 37 metres in length, built in 1974, previously in service with Spain's maritime safety agency 'Salvamento Marítimo'. It was donated to the NGO in mid 2017. 

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THE ENGINE DEPARTMENT, AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE PUZZLE, POSES ON TOP OF THE 4000 HP ENGINE THAT BURNS MORE THAN 3000 LITERS OF FUEL PER DAY.

On November 4th 2020, after 10 days of intense preparation, Open Arms set sail towards the Central Mediterranean.

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The Search and Rescue (SAR) zones determine which country is responsible for bringing rescued people to the nearest safe port.

Asylum seekers rescued by Libyan authorities are returned to the country’s detention centres where many have been subjected to torture and abuse. Open Arms therefore patrols in the Maltese SAR zone, looking for boats in distress.

Five days into the mission, the crew spots a floating backpack.

Inside, among personal belongings, a couple of rings, either wedding or engagement rings are found but nothing that allows to explain what might have happened.

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Personal belongings found inside a floating backpack, about 150km from the Libyan coast.

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One of the rings found in the adrift backpack. (Photo: David Llado, Open Arms)

Thanks to photos published in the Italian press, the rings were later identified by NGO "Médecins Sans Frontières" as belonging to an Algerian couple. They were among 15 survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Italy in which five people died. 

Later that afternoon, a half sunken wooden boat appeared drifting on the perfectly flat sea.

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A HALF SUNKEN WOODEN BOAT SPOTTED BY OPEN ARMS ON NOVEMBER 9TH 2020.

"Where are these people, and have they been rescued? Or have they drowned in this mass grave that is the Mediterranean Sea?"

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Oscar Camps, co-founder of Open Arms

How Open Arms was born

In September 2015 life guard Oscar Camps daughter saw the picture of the dead body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while fleeing the war. She asked her father why Proactiva —Oscar’s lifeguard company— wasn’t there to save little Alan.

A few weeks later, Oscar took the 15k euros of saving he had and flew to the Greek island of Lesbos with his colleague Gerard to help the thousands of people who arrived there by boat, fleeing war.
Open Arms was born.

As the days passes, none of the week’s alerts have led to a rescue, with the boats either having disappeared or been intercepted by the Libyan authorities. But 16 days into the mission, things started to change.

"We began receiving lots of alerts, so we decided to go to the one that's in the worst conditions. You have to choose the one in the most danger and deal with it first."  

–– Marc Reig, Captain of Open Arms Mission 78.

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THE RESCUE TEAM TRAINS ON THE DEPLOYMENT OF A CENTIFLOAT SOMEWHERE IN THE CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN.

The first target is a boat carrying 86 people. Minutes wasted can mean the difference between life and death so the two rescue boats, which can reach speeds of up to 70 kilometers per hour, are sent ahead of the mother ship to the boat in distress.

"The bow of the boat was completely deflated and passengers were holding up the rubber sides to prevent water from flooding in."  

– Marc Reig, Captain of Open Arms Mission 78

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WE FOUND THE MAKESHIFT RUBBER BOAT WITH THE BOW ALREADY COMPLETELY DEFLATED.

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AFTER THE LIFEJACKET DISTRIBUTION, CRISTINA INSTRUCT PEOPLE TO STAY CALM WHILE WAITING FOR THE MOTHER SHIP TO ARRIVE.

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The long wait for the mother ship to arrive.

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Rescued people are transferred aboard the Open Arms mothership.

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Asylum seekers hold on to a strap while waiting for the triage.

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Luca, the onboard nurse, is treating chemical burns on a rescued person.

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A young man from Eritrea soon after being rescued from a certain death.

The next morning, having had only two hours sleep, the rescue team heads out to find another boat in distress.

As the crew approaches, the boat erupts in cheers. Having spent more than 36 hours at sea, the migrants believe they are now safe.

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The overcrowded makeshift rubber boat with 118 people aboard

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the rescue team distribute life jackets before transboarding people.

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7 YEARS OLD BALGANY from guinea has no idea what he soon will have to go through...

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The swell surges during the long wait for the Open Arms mothership to arrive.

Soon after distributing the life jackets and transboarding the first woman, the makeshift boat collapses, releasing all passengers into the sea. Many can't swim.

"The first thing that came to my mind is: 'That's not possible, I can't believe what I'm seeing." 

- Gerard, Lifeguard on Open Arms Mission #78

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THE MOMENT WHEN THE MAKESHIFT BOAT COLLAPSES AND EVERYONE ABOARD FALLS INTO THE SEA.

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3 MONTHS JOSEPH'S MOTHER DESEPERATELY LOOK FOR HER BABY LOST IN THE WATER.

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7 years old Balgany, is pulled out of the water seconds away from drowning.

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A man floats on the remains of the makeshift boat that just collapsed.

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In less than 4 minutes, the first Centifloat (orange float in the back) is deployed.

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With 118 people in the water, the rescue team is overwhelmed. I joined this mission to witness and report, but now a tragedy is unfolding in front of me... and I'm part of it. 

I have to drop the video camera to help getting people out of the water. A compact photo camera is hanging from my neck and I instinctively activate the video mode button. For 17 minutes, it will record the chaos of the rescue before it short circuited due to water splashing. The following images are stills from that terrorific footage. 

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The moment 6 month old Joseph is transferred to the Open Arms. (Photo: Sergi Camara)

This six-month-old baby was named Joseph and he came from Guinea Conakry. His body was recovered from the sea in respiratory arrest and the medical team managed to revive him at first. Hours later, however, he passed away.

That night, shortly after the rescue of another adrift boat with 64 people, 6 people were evacuated by an Italian Coast Guard helicopter.

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The rescued people travelled from across Africa to Libya, where an unstable government has allowed smugglers to act with impunity, making huge profits by packing desperate migrants into unsafe vessels bound for southern Europe.

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Two minors from Eritrea.

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The only Morrocan man onboard.

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Approaching the port of Trapani, Sicily.

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SOME OF THE LETTERS AND DRAWINGS THE CREW RECEIVED FROM THE RESCUED PEOPLE

Open Arms Mission #78 Crew

Marc

MARC, CAPTAIN

David

DAVID, SEARCH & RESCUE COORDINATOR

Erri

RICARDO, 1ST OFFICER

Luis

LUÍS, SECOND OFFICER

Kike

KIKE, CHIEF ENGINEER

Diego1

DIEGO, FIRST ASSISTANT ENGINEER

Carlos

CARLOS, SECOND ASSISTANT ENGINEER

carliños

CARLIÑOS, BOATSWAIN

Joaquin3

JOAQUIN, SEAMAN, RESCUE BOAT SKIPPER

Chemi1

CHEMI, SEAMAN, RESCUE BOAT SKIPPER

Cris3

CRISTINA, LIFEGUARD

Cynthia

CYNTHIA, , LIFEGUARD

Gerard-1

GERARD, LIFEGUARD

Fede-wide

FEDERICO, LIFEGUARD

ari4

ARI, DOCTOR

Luca

LUCA, NURSE

Isa

ISABEL, COOK

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Mandatory PPE's are making work even more difficult.

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Interviewing survivers. (Photo: Sergi Camara)

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My home for 36 days

A life-transforming experience.

This shooting has been by far the hardest, and most intense experience of my career but it's also been the most rewarding and meaningful one. The encounter with the rescued people but also with the entire crew of the Open Arms will stay with me forever .

The positive reception of the film gave a sense to all these efforts and made me think that the death of these 6 people hasn't been in vain. 

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If you have been touched by this story, you can help Open Arms to pursue its mission.

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CREDITS

Produced by
Vice News

Directed / Written / Filmed by
JEAN-MARC JOSEPH

Supervising Producer
LIANNE TURNER

Line Producer   
MAR FONT

Production Manager   
ANDREA ARIAS

Head of Video   
SANTI AGUADO

 

Editor 
GUILLEM COMAS

Music
JAMES HALL

Post Sound
OBODO - London 

Additional Editing
SUPERJEANMARC

Additional Music
AUDIONETWORKS

Narrated by
LAURENT LAUGHLIN

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This documentary was commissioned by Vice News, Vice Media's current affairs channel. It promotes itself on its coverage of "under-reported stories". Vice News was created in December 2013 and is based in New York City, though it has bureaus worldwide.

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Phone: +34 679 75 56 40
Email: jm@superjeanmarc.com