More than 1,000 exhausted and terrified migrants were savouring a moment of safety on board a British warship last night as the Royal Navy embarked on its biggest rescue mission yet responding to the tide of humanity sweeping across the Mediterranean.
Men, women and children – many barefoot, others carried on stretchers and one polio-afflicted man even crawling on his back like a crab – were taken aboard HMS Bulwark after being plucked to safety from at nine small vessels off the coast of Libya.
Among those rescued, who spoke of fleeing war and poverty across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, were at least 10 pregnant women – one of whom went into labour as she was helped from a dinghy designed for a maximum of 20 people but crammed with about 100.
Hundreds of others were helped from a rickety wooden boat whose packed and stifling lower decks were likened to the scene on a slave ship.
Some recounted fights on board the people smuggling boat as some vied to escape the stifling, smoke-filled lower deck to fresh air.
It came amid a weekend of intense efforts by the international rescue operations also involving German, Italian, and Irish ships in which at least 3,500 others were also rescued.
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But the tally was likened to the tip of an iceberg, with an estimated half million would-be refugees now thought to be heading for the Libyan coast in hope of a new life in Europe.
David Cameron hailed the operation on Sunday as demonstrating that Britain is a country that “doesn’t walk on by”.
Speaking at the G7 summit in Germany, he said the rescue effort showed that the UK was a “country with a conscience” but added the international community must also do more to stop people their countries in the first place.
The high level praise for the rescue mission contrasts with the position last year when Parliament was told that Britain would not support further search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean amid fears it would encourage people smuggling.
The 10-hour operation began at around 1.30am following intelligence from Italy about packed migrant vessels in the area.
Bulwark came within around 20 miles of the Libyan coast, sending out small assault boats to approach the eight dinghies and one wooden boat individually. They distributed life jackets and water before carefully taking the migrants on board.
Each rescue involved four launches approaching the crowded vessels, two on each side, to prevent migrants surging to one side and capsizing.
Those rescued came from Syria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Sudan among other places. One man in his 40s told Royal Marines how he was nursing wounds after being been stabbed and shot in Libya.
Another, Iftiekihr Raza, a father-of-three from Faisalabad in Pakistan, who had also been badly injured by people smugglers in Libya in the last few days, said: “It’s like being in hell – but at the moment I am with the best people in the world.”
Yasin, 29, also from Pakistan, added: “I have lost my money and my government, the British have saved my life.”
Another passenger asked simply: “How long will it take to get to London?”
Among the youngest of those rescued was two year-old Fatima Kulabari, Bamako, Mali, carried by her mother Asha, 26, who had left her husband behind in desperation as she fled.
“I have my baby and nothing else,” she said.
Others had left even children behind.
Rose, 21, from Nigeria, who made the perilous journey to flee terrorism with her husband Ibrahim, 35, despite being four months pregnant.
“We left our three year-old daughter back home with my mother-in-law to look after.
“That makes me very sad but we didn’t have the money to bring her with us.
“We paid $1,200 in Libya for this journey but it was truly terrifying.
“Being back home there was much danger so that is why we made this journey.
“I was very sick on that wooden boat and was vomiting all the time. I was very scared for my baby but now these people have saved us and I feel very safe and happy.
“One day I hope our daughter will join us. I hope to go to Europe.”
Many of the men sewn hidden pouches, wrapped in clear film, into their clothing to hide their last dollars or euros from the people smugglers.
Commodore Martin Connell, commander of the ongoing rescue mission Operation Weald, said: “The important issue is the safety of the migrants but it is not without risk, because of where we are.
“It is all a risk calculation … all of this has to come into consideration but it is heart-warming to see how the crew react.
“These people may not have eaten for a few days but we have to be sensitive about their culture and diet.
“So the cook will prepare a meal, perhaps of porridge and fruit, which is a good meal.
“They will be scared and nervous … it could be like entering the Starship Enterprise so we have to be sensitive to that.”