Understanding a little of the migrants’ pitiful journey
Listen to From Our Own Correspondent for insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
Broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30 and Thursdays at 11:02 GMT and BBC World Service
Listen to the programme
Download the programme
“When I boarded the ship and saw the dirt, the lack of hygiene and the women and children so dehydrated who'd had no food and water for days… it was just so terrible and so moving. You know I have such a good life and to see those people struggling…” He trailed off and looked down at the deck. “We can't give up you know,” he said firmly. “These people need our help.”
The problem is too many people need Frontex's help. More than 19,000 migrants have arrived on Italy's shores since last November. Frontex which doesn't have any operational equipment of its own, relies on EU or Schengen member states (like Iceland) to lend it the planes, ships and helicopters it needs for operations. It currently has a handful of resources to cover the huge Mediterranean sea.
On the ship's bridge, Capt Einar Valsson shows me the course he is plotting to intercept the suspicious cargo ship. I'm alarmed when I realise it's over 100 miles out to sea. The captain shrugs.
“When the distress call comes, we have to answer that call. We come from Iceland,” he reminds me. “A small country of 300,000 people. One life is very important for us – we can't just leave people in the Mediterranean.”
The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby joined a Frontex crew patrolling in the Mediterranean
But people are being left, no matter how many rules Frontex is bending. Aid agencies say that last week's tragedy, in which more than 300 migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, shows how woefully inadequate the mission is. When the emergency calls for help sounded, both of Frontex's large vessels, including the Icelandic one I'd been aboard, were in port and too far away to help. Twenty nine migrants who were rescued by a small vessel died of hypothermia on the way back to shore. Doctors on the scene claimed if they had been picked up by a big naval or coastguard ship, they probably would have survived. Italy decided to end its Mare Nostrum mission after its EU partners refused to share the high costs of running the operation. Ironically it's those same reluctant EU partners who are now being relied on to offer handouts to Frontex.
More than 580 people – mostly from Syria – disembark in Italy after being rescued by Frontex last December
After 29 hours of misery, Captain Valsson finally steers us into the safety of Pozzallo port. It's been a frustrating mission for him – by the time he'd caught up with the suspicious cargo ship, it had moved to international waters meaning his crew did not have the right to board and inspect it. No-one can now be sure if it was hiding migrants in its hold – the ship has plotted a new course towards the Canary Islands.
“This,” he says, gesturing towards the water, “is what we call a pig of a sea. Tomorrow, it will be worse.”
Tomorrow, right now, more desperate people will be stepping into dinghies, inflatable rubber boats, handing over money for a place in the engine room of a rusted cargo ship. I understand a little now of how pitiful their journeys will be. I daren't guess as to how they will end.
The Icelandic coastguard vessel Tyr, off the coast of Sicily
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and Thursdays at 11:02 GMT
Listen online or download the podcast.
BBC World Service: At weekends – see World Service programme schedule.
Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.