A.As I paddled through the crashing waves in the dark, my stomach churning, I saw our little boat begin to fill with water with a sinking sensation; It wouldn’t be long before we fell overboard, and I was concerned that at least one person in my boat was rowing in the wrong direction. But then again, it could have been me: I was holding an oar twice my size and it was impossible to tell in the frenzy.
Before we knew it, the odyssey was over and the lights were back on. I came out drenched, muscles aching and nerves fired, relieved to be out of the water.
This was the RNLI Marine Survival Pool, used to train volunteers in the rigors of life and death water rescue. All I’d done was go through a 25-meter pool four times, but it was enough to ensure that repeating that at least 325 more times through the canal would be a deeply traumatic experience. What’s more, it is a journey that would probably be much longer since a migrant is, in many cases, guided only by the compass of a smartphone.
The experience was intended to give me a glimpse of what it is like for migrants crossing the canal in small, unsuitable boats filled with up to 50 passengers, all of whom are scared and desperately waiting for their long and difficult journeys through Europe, that have continued for months or years of suffering and hardship, are about to come to an end.
But my experience was not as fraught with danger as what they would endure. The water was at 20 ° C instead of the canal’s current 12 ° C (which, even then, is warm compared to other times of the year). We were also in a swimming pool, not on one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and my four fellow sailors and I had a common language and our flotation devices were life jackets, not bottles of lemonade.
The main difference, of course, is what we knew we would get out of alive, with clean towels waiting by the side and comfortable houses to return to.
Yet even understanding a shred of what it might be like to be adrift with a group of strangers, whose experience of the sea would often be, like mine, limited, gave me an idea of how desperate someone must be to try. to the test.
Organized by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, the survival at sea session is part of their work to help the public understand and empathize with the human struggle of migrants. RNLI Executive Director Mark Dowie worries that photographs of migrants pushing boats out into calm seas on sunny afternoons are fueling criticism of his rescue work, persuading people that reaching British shores seeking asylum is Similar to a casual outing in the summer waters.
It is this lack of recognition of the human face of the crisis that the RNLI believes underpins allegations made by Nigel Farage that the volunteer-run charity is operating a “taxi service for illegal immigration”, rather than complying with their duty to save lives at sea without judging how they got there.
The RNLI wants people to understand that migrants are real people like themselves, who are going through a more heartbreaking experience than most of us can even begin to conceive.
I know that my brief sojourn in the wild waters will leave me thinking for a long time of all those ships in the stormy night, full of men, women and children trying to survive the towering waves, the huge ships and the freezing cold, waiting for them. You will soon meet dry land and human compassion.