When I first heard about Cameron Macnicol’s life, I was drawn in. Spending months out at sea is a unique enough existence, but throughout the past year, while working on a commercial cargo ship, Cameron was brought into a world of desperation, suffering, and salvation. Working as a navigator, he has helped rescue thousands of refugees from the deadly waters of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. Cameron has had to witness some of the most tragic and horrifying human experiences.
This particular migration route is considered to be the deadliest in the world, with a record number of deaths occurring in 2016. Refugees flee across the Mediterranean from places like Darfur, Eritrea, Gambia, and Nigeria in the hopes of making it to Italy. The last leg of their arduous journey requires them to pile into a lifeboat with hundreds of strangers, drift out to sea, and use a satellite phone to call the Italian Coast Guard. Most of the people who make it this far have endured prison, starvation, and abuse.
Their journey can take months, and at the end, they find themselves in the middle of the ocean, hoping for a ship to save them.
This is how Cameron—a twenty-seven-year-old Scotsman—ends up working on a cargo ship off the coast of Africa and saving thousands of refugees. He answered each of my questions slowly and thoughtfully, and I heard the sorrow in his voice, recounting stories from his time at sea. This work has taken a toll on him, but he wanted to share the story of what is truly happening to the refugees who make this crossing. It’s not a beautiful story. It’s not always a happy story. But it is an important story.
What do you do?
I’m a second officer, the navigator of the ship. I work on a cargo ship and right now we’re working off the coast of Libya, North Africa. I fly into Malta and from there we sail to Libya.
How long are your trips?
I work two months on and two months off.
How did you get in this business?
I started when I was sixteen in the Merchant Navy. I wanted to leave school early and travel, so I began working on a container ship treading all over the world. In the UK you can join the Merchant Navy when you’re sixteen. My first trip I went to over twenty-three different countries in the first four months. First stop was Barcelona and then on to New York. I got my college degree while working on the ship.
What is the Merchant Navy?
It’s basically all ships that aren’t military, mostly recognized as cargo ships, container ships, gas tankers, oil tankers…that sort of thing. Those were three- to four-month trips and then two months off.
What did your parents think about you joining at such a young age?
They encouraged it. I’m the first person in my family to do this. They worry about me, but I hope they’re proud. Now that there’s Wi-Fi on our ships, we’re able to communicate every day.
What’s an average day at work?
Right now, I work six hours on and six hours off. So, I work 6:00 a.m. to midday and then 6:00 p.m. to midnight. Just like that, constantly. Between two shifts, you cover the twenty-four hours in a day. Every day is slightly different, but if you’re not at sea navigating, then you’re at port in charge of loading and unloading the ship. When I get back home, my sleeping pattern is all over the place. It takes a few days to adjust. It’s amazing to just come back and sleep.
When did you start to see refugees?
I was in the North Sea before this current job. I went to Libya just over a year ago. Basically, we get calls from the Navy and the Coast Guard in the area and they book all the rescues. They don’t have enough people to help, so they call us up and give us a position and tell us to go and rescue them.
So, they ask you guys to rescue them?
And your company is okay with this?
They don’t have a choice. It’s the law of the sea. People are in distress, so you have to rescue them. If you’re told to go, you have to go.
So, what do you do?
Depends, once we have a few on board, then we’ll keep getting called to different locations and keep collecting more and more. We then wait for them to instruct us what to do. It’s usually the Italian Coast Guard, and they’ll tell us to take them to Europe or transfer them to another ship.
Do you speak the language?
No. The crew I’m working with are a mix of Europeans and Filipinos.
Given the language barrier, have you ever been able to speak to any of the refugees?
There are some occasions where a few of them speak English. A lot of them don’t, but it’s great when you have one that does so they can help out. One guy told me he was crossing because he wanted a better life in Europe. He said he paid the smugglers about $800. This is a boat with 120 people on it, so if they’re all paying $800, then someone is making a lot of money. I have been to West Africa before for work and have seen what it’s like. It’s a terrible way of living. There’s a lot of poverty.
When you say you go pick them up in the middle of the sea, what do you mean?
It’s basically all set up. The refugees will pay the smugglers. Normally, the smugglers will put them on rubber inflatable boats. You usually have 120 refugees on one inflatable boat, which should only hold about a quarter of that. The idea is they go so many miles off the coast, and then I’m not sure how, but they’ll tell the Coast Guard where they are. They will say “We are in distress and in this position,” and then somebody has to go pick them up. They know how the system works.
How do you get them on board?
That’s the difficult part. If there are 120 refugees on a small boat trying to get them to stay calm and board safely is very hard. We have a ladder that they climb up. Quite often there’s a lot injured and they start to panic…quite chaotic. Thankfully, most of the time they only come out when the weather is not too bad.
How many times have you had to do this in the last year?
I haven’t counted. I mean, it depends. Sometimes we can go weeks or a couple months and we won’t have any rescues, but then we’ll have four or five in one week. Just a couple of months ago we had six rescues in one day. We had over five hundred refugees on our ship and only fourteen crew members.
You only had fourteen crew members for five hundred refugees while still having to do your job that you are originally there for?
That’s right, yeah. The cook has to make rice or something, and there are only a few women generally on board, so they use the bathroom inside. And the men use a bucket. It’s pretty much all men.
Any children refugees?
We get a few kids occasionally. Many of the women that are crossing are pregnant. During my last rescue, there were six or seven pregnant women onboard.
Why is it mostly men?
I can’t say for sure, but what we were told—again I’m not 100% sure—but they say the men will come over first, take the risk, and once they are set up in Europe, then the rest will come over. But that’s just a rumor I heard. I don’t know if it’s true.
When they’re onboard, are they just sitting in the open cargo area?
That’s right. They sit there for a few days. The kids as well. We don’t have space. We’re not really equipped for it.
What’s the emotion like onboard?
A lot of the refugees are nice. We will get a lot of refugees who are from different places, and there are quite a few fights that can break out between the different nationalities.
Do you try to break it up?
We do, but there are five hundred of them and fourteen of us so it gets chaotic. A few times I’ve felt it was dangerous. When we had the five hundred aboard, they got a bit frustrated. They had been on their smaller boat for a couple of days then came on ours and were just lying down and hungry. They are obviously very frustrated, so tensions were running high. Throughout the night little scraps broke out.
What has been one of the most stressful situations so far?
One time the Coast Guard dropped off two hundred refugees. We thought they were coming to collect the refugees we already had on board, but instead they were dropping off two hundred more. The refugees’ boat had capsized, and they had Navy swimmers rescuing them out of the water. This was at about eleven at night, so they were all freezing cold and soaking wet. The temperature in the water was about six or seven degrees Celsius. A lot drowned that day. A lot of children were being passed up to us on the ship without parents because the parents had drowned. Some were only two years old. I remember there was a woman on the ship just holding her dead child in her arms. Her child had just drowned.
That’s such a horrible thing to both witness and live through, for both you and the refugees.
Yeah, it’s a brutal journey for them. Another time, last summer, we were doing a rescue, just like any other and the boat came alongside the ship. But all of them panicked, so we were trying to board them all—imagine 120 people trying to climb up a ladder all at once. About half of them fell in the water. There were six or seven who drowned in front of us, and there was nothing we could do. I was shaken for a few days after that. A lot more refugees are drowning than everyone is even aware of. While working in the area, I hear over the radio people reporting casualties that never make it into the news.
How do you deal with all of this?
It’s something I’ve never seen before and never want to see again. I mean I was quite shaken for a couple of days, but I have just accepted that it’s part of the job. We rescue who we can, and we do everything we can. It’s unfortunate.
When you drop them off what happens?
Every time is different. I have only been to Europe once myself, but it was too stormy to drop them off so the Coast Guard came over and got them off. Sometimes we just transfer them all over the place until there’s a boat going up to Europe.”
Do you know who the smugglers are?
No, but sometimes, when we’re doing a rescue, there will be another boat nearby and they’re waiting to take the boat back to Libya to be used again. Quite often we will sink the boat after we are finished so it can’t be used again.
What have you taken away from all of this? How has it changed you?
This career has given me the chance to see parts of the world I’d never been able to see. I’ve had the privilege to travel to over ninety countries with my job. Working off the coast of Libya has been an eye opener. Seeing families fleeing from war and poverty…it makes me realize how lucky I am living where I do. Everyone should be grateful for what they have. You have no control over where you are born in this world. This could easily be any one of us.
Interviewed by Anna Broadfoot-Theunissen.