Chapter I: Dignity comes first


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has always worked on land: in warzones, in refugee camps, in earthquake zones, in cities affected by epidemics such as Ebola, in the mountains and in the desert. For the first time in its history, in 2015 MSF made the decision to venture into new territory and work at sea. It saw a humanitarian emergency in the Mediterranean Sea: thousands of people were dying while trying to cross one of the most dangerous borders in the world, while the EU regarded their deaths with indifference. This is the story of one of MSF’s search and rescue vessels, which took to the water in a bid to stop the Mediterranean continuing to be a mass grave.

Dignity I, on the high seas and ready for action | Anna Surinyach

On 13 June 2015, Dignity I set sail from the port of Barcelona, heading for the ‘rescue zone’ off the coast of Libya. Built in 1971, the 50-metre long ship, under the name Furore-G, had previously sailed the North Sea delivering supplies to oil platforms. Then the ship’s name and destiny were changed forever: instead of servicing the oil industry, it now saves people’s lives.

Since being renamed and refurbished for its new purpose, Dignity I has set sail in the warmer months, when most crossings of the Mediterranean Sea take place. Areas in the stern of the ship and on the decks have been kitted out to accommodate people rescued from the sea. A clinic has been constructed to tend to the injured, pregnant and sick. On board are MSF medical and logistics staff more used to working in South Sudan or Afghanistan, but who have now had to learn the ways of the sea. At the same time, captains, petty officers and sailors from the merchant navy or luxury yachts lend their maritime experience while learning the ways of humanitarianism.

The death rate in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years has exceeded that of some wars. In a conflict zone, a hospital is like a small beacon of hope, providing a bit of relief. It’s the same for this 50-metre ship, originally built for another purpose entirely. The vastness of the sea; the launch of dozens of flimsy boats; shipwrecks, accidents. But humanitarian drive is a powerful thing: when faced with desperate circumstances, we find desperate solutions. Life comes first. Dignity comes first.

We climb on board Dignity I.