Northern Ireland

Belfast man returns from rescuing migrants in Aegean Sea

Tim Brown Image copyright MOAS
Image caption Tim Brown who has just returned from the Aegean Sea

"Nothing can fully prepare you to see all the children injured, with hypothermia, or to see a mother whose child has drowned."

Tim Brown, a volunteer rescue swimmer from Lagan Search and Rescue, has just returned from the Aegean Sea where he spent two-and-a-half weeks saving a total of 94 people.

He worked alongside people from 12 countries on a mission with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a charity rescuing migrants and refugees in trouble at sea.

The mission came out of a collaboration between Lagan Search and Rescue and MOAS.

Image copyright MOAS

When Mr Brown was first approached with the idea of being sent out to the Aegean Sea, he was initially hesitant when he found out he would miss out on Christmas and New Years at home.

"It's a time of year when your extended family get together maybe once or twice a year at most," he said.

"So it was a pity in some ways but at the end of the day I just thought why would I turn down the opportunity to save lives?"

Image copyright MOAS

More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, sparking a political crisis on the continent.

Mr Brown said he was unaware of the full scale of the mission in the Aegean Sea.

"Before I went, I kind of looked at the map and thought, 'it's this little region here and we could patrol it quite easily,'" he said.

"But then I realised how vast it was when I was out there.

"It would nearly be impossible to patrol that whole region unless you had a massive fleet of ships."

The relationship between rescuers and the migrants and refugees onboard is a complex one.

"I didn't get to talk to the refugees too much," Mr Brown said.

Image copyright MOAS

"In some ways you need to maintain some sort of formality to control so many people on board.

"I got talking to some couples about where they were coming from.

"They were saying how dangerous the sea was but it wasn't as dangerous as the country they came from."

One of the most confronting aspects about the mission, Mr Brown said, was coming face to face with migrant and refugee children.

Image copyright MOAS

"Our last rescue that I was involved with, what really stood out to see such young children, a few months old, toddlers, all ages, being injured," he said.

"Head injuries, hypothermia and then also unfortunately, one of the toddlers was two years old and had died at sea and we had to recover his body.

"Just to see the child being put into the coffin and the coffin being carried off into a hearse, it really hits home what does happen there."

"Sometimes you hear numbers, but then you see face to face a child that has drowned at sea. And then you speak to the mother.

"I think the mother was still in shock when I was speaking to her and it's pretty tough to see that face-to-face and that's something that stands out."

Image copyright MOAS

Mr Brown prepared for the deployment in the Aegean Sea after a year of training and experience with Lagan Search and Rescue.

Part of the benefit of the exchange he said, was the experience and skills he could bring back to Northern Ireland.

While he was physically prepared for the mission, he said it was emotionally taxing.

"People did tell me it would be physically taxing," Mr Brown said.

"But being emotionally demanding was the main part.

Image copyright MOAS

"We could only take injured on board at the time. Authorities wouldn't let us take anyone else."

What is Mr Brown's take on the refugee and migrant crisis after taking part in the mission?

"The mission was primarily that we're assisting people fleeing from acts of war" he said.

"They're really refugees and not migrants. If you look at these pictures it's just impossible not to have compassion for these families. Especially first hand."

Image copyright MOAS

"They're forced to make that perilous journey and they're risking it for all the freedom that we have, that we take for granted."

"At the end of the day, the ethos for search and rescue, there are no borders," he said.

"Whether we're in the Lagan river or the eastern Aegean, no one deserves to die at sea."

Image copyright MOAS

A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

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