On board the Ocean Viking (AFP)

Calls to the various relief coordination centers around the Mediterranean, conversations with other boats, rescue operations, exchanges with the land: aboard the Ocean Viking, everything is recorded and if possible filmed, for to counter any attack.

For several years, critics have been firing against the ships of NGOs rescuing migrants off Libya, accused of being - voluntarily or not - accomplices in the smuggling networks.

In Italy, a survey to aid illegal immigration is systematically opened against the commanders of ships landing migrants, and although most have been closed, several NGO boats are still in receivership, starting with the Juventa of the German NGO Jugend Rettet (since August 2017) and the Sea-Watch 3 (since the end of June).

In this context of exacerbated mistrust, the crew of the Ocean Viking, the SOS Mediterranean Sea and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship currently navigating in slow motion, halfway between the Italian island of Lampedusa and Malta while waiting for a port to disembark the 356 migrants he rescued, must be able to justify his smallest decisions.

To collect the evidence and document the mission, Louise G., 33 years old, embarked as a "Research Evidence Officer" (REO, Evidence Searching Officer): this lawyer by training, Deputy Director of Operations of SOS Mediterranean, passes hours in front of the control screens on the bridge - the command post - of the big red boat.

The procedure was adopted in the summer of 2018 aboard Aquarius, the former ship of SOS Mediterranean and MSF.

All data from the three on-board radars, GPS and AIS (Automatic Identification System that allows authorities to identify and locate the vessel in real time) are recorded. A backup system, the CLS, doubles the GPS in the absence of a signal, as was the case with the Ocean Viking - and other boats in the vicinity - when it arrived off the waters Libyan.

"If you have to justify yourself, everything is saved," explains Louise. It is also a way to keep the general public informed: every day on board costs 14,000 euros and the NGO is mainly financed by private donations.

All forms of communication - satellite, VHF radio, telephone, emails - with authorities and other boats are also preserved, as well as conversations on the bridge.

- "Suspected, listened, scrutinized" -

"We are suspected, listened to, scrutinized: we must be even more virtuous than the others," she explains.

"This is all the more necessary in case we are accused of having forced the territorial waters of this or that country," says Nicholas Romaniuk, head of relief operations.

Starting August 4 in Marseille, the Ocean Viking patrolled the research area in international waters without ever approaching Libyan territorial waters. No more than he hears today, waiting for a European port where to land the rescued people, to force Italian or Maltese waters.

"For us, the law exists, it applies," insists Louise. "We act strictly within the framework of maritime conventions and international law".

A dozen cameras on board and go-pro (mini-cameras) on board the zodiacs of rescuers also record each operation with the Ocean Viking.

Breathtaking the perilous exercise of deep-sea rescue, all the more tense as most migrants do not know how to swim, Ocean Viking lifeguards do not live up to the accusations that they are traffickers or smugglers.

"If our presence was causing people to put their lives in danger, I would stop everything right now," says Nicholas Romaniuk, a former diver who earned "three times better his life" when he plunged for oil rigs off the coast. West Africa.

"We do not save people fleeing Libya, we save people at sea, in an area where no one intervenes," he insists. "As soon as people stop dying, we will go home."

© 2019 AFP