HMS Bulwark 'overloaded' by migrant tide

Royal Marines from HMS Bulwark help rescue migrants stranded on a boat, thirty miles off the Libyan coast. Image copyright PA
Image caption More than 43,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year already

For HMS Bulwark and her crew, 7 June was "the longest day".

It started at first light when she launched her Merlin helicopter to scan the horizon for the boats filled with migrants. It didn't take long to find them.

As the Royal Navy ship lowered her landing craft to begin rescuing the first three boats filled with migrants, reports were coming in of more on route from Libya.

The first boat we saw illustrated their desperation to reach Europe.

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Media captionMigrants are transferred to the Royal Navy warship, as Jonathan Beale reports

A small wooden vessel was packed with around 400 people. There was barely any room to move on deck.

Below, another load of migrants had been loaded like cargo. They were drifting without an engine, just hoping for salvation. It would have needed a miracle for that boat to complete the journey to Europe.

Nearby Bulwark's crew were also coming to the rescue of two perilous rubber dinghies, each carrying around a hundred more people.

The fact that many didn't even have life jackets was another reminder that the gangs who trafficked them had little regard for their lives.

In Bulwark's docking bay we watched wave after wave of landing craft arrive, each full with another load of people.

The injured were among the first to be offloaded. We watched as a women was stretchered off - she was pregnant and suffering from dehydration. For most their only belongings were the clothes they were wearing.

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They were marshalled to an area to be processed. First they were searched to ensure none was carrying any weapons. Then they were asked to give their names and the countries they came from.

They had travelled from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and sub-Saharan Africa. There were Syrians who had fled one civil war only to find another in Libya.

After they had been given some food and water, we spoke to them about their journey. They told us that they had paid around $1,000 (£650) to the gangs who had smuggled them.

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Many had come to Libya to find work but as the country descended into chaos they found they were the victims of discrimination.

Tor, a Christian man from South Sudan, said he'd been victimised because he didn't have a Muslim name. He broke down in tears when I asked him about the family he had left behind. He claimed as well that some of the people involved in the smuggling had also been rescued.

Moussa from Ghana, who was just 17, said he had been beaten by the people who trafficked him.

Whatever the reasons that had taken them to Libya, they all agreed that it was now too dangerous to stay. They were making the journey to Europe because they thought it was their only hope.

Esaw, another man from Ghana, told me that he wasn't even expecting to survive the journey.

By the end of the day Bulwark and her crew had taken on board 1,200 people with the ship declared in "overload" conditions.

Some survivors were taken onto the upper open decks, because there wasn't enough room below to accommodate them.

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In the words of Bulwark's captain this "may well be the tip of the iceberg". This is supported by some estimates that say there are already half a million people waiting to make the same journey.

The captain can't be sure they picked up everyone at sea on this day. All he can say is that Bulwark and her crew have done all they can to bring as many as possible to safety.

The Royal Navy ship is now on her way to Sicily to hand the migrants over to the Italian authorities.

But soon Bulwark will set sail again to look for the next wave coming in. A seemingly endless tide of migrants desperate for a better life.

And as yet no-one knows how to halt it.

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