Photo. Raft from Libya. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

A Compass in the Migrant Crisis

In June 2015, as the migrant crisis intensified on the Mediterranean, I asked a friend Carol Devine, who has a long history of working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), if it would be possible to collect objects that document the medical dimension of this experience. She immediately mobilized to have a message sent to MSF staff on the MOAS rescue ship MY Phoenix stationed on the Mediterranean. Simon Bryant, a Canadian physician on board, took up the challenge. During his tour, he set aside a range of objects – a mariner’s compass found on an overcrowded inflatable raft, children’s flotation aids, emergency medical devices for maintaining a patient’s airway, a disposable white coverall, a sign for the consultation room door, as well as a worn flag from the Phoenix – all with images and detailed provenance.

Photo. Pool Floatie recovered during Mediterranean rescue mission in the summer of 2015. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

Life Jacket and Pool Floatie recovered during Mediterranean rescue mission in the summer of 2015. Floatie reads on back: “NOT TO BE USED FOR BOATING … NOT A LIFESAVING DEVICE.” Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

The first contact between migrants and the West has often been through rescue efforts on the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015 MSF launched sea rescue operations with Migrant Offshore AID Station (MOAS) because so many were drowning or lost at sea during the treacherous voyage from Libya and Turkey and had health needs upon arrival in Europe.

In many cases, there are immediate medical needs on the ship, so capturing that encounter was the focus of my initial request. Dr. Bryant’s subsequent selection of objects represented a broader snapshot of life in the rescue zone. By choosing the sign from the front of the consultation room, he was drawing our attention to the the migrant perspective amidst the turmoil of the rescue ship and challenges of language barriers.

The “Consultation in Progress” side of the clinic door window sign. Photo by Simon Bryant.

The “Consultation in Progress” side of the clinic door window sign. Photo by Simon Bryant.

One of the floatation devices was in fact a pool floatie “NOT TO BE USED FOR BOATING” (increasingly used by migrant children), while the other was a certified device; the Guedel airway devices were a constant in Dr. Bryant’s pocket during his tour; the mariner’s compass was a brass-coloured plastic instrument manufactured by a navigation and fishing equipment company in China.

Photo. Mariner’s compass made by Zhanhui Industry, Ltd. Guangdong Province, China. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant.

Mariner’s compass made by Zhanhui Industry, Ltd. Guangdong Province, China. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant.

The objects have become migrants on their own remarkable journey. In the fall of 2015, shortly after they arrived in Ottawa, curator Dan Conlin at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax took up the challenge to display these objects for the public. The exhibit, Perilous Crossing, communicated the migrant crisis in simple and powerful material terms, which at that time had become the top story in the Canadian news. This May, the exhibit and artifacts will be moving to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg for the summer of 2016. And there are now more requests to showcase these objects after the summer (the compass may be going to the Shanghai Biennale 2016), completing their unexpected voyage around the world, while building complex biographies – from Chinese factory products, to consumer goods (who bought the compass, where?!), to survival items, to cultural artifacts.

Simon Bryant wrote about his 2015 rescue tour in a blog “Bringing Home the Rescue-Zone.” Joshua Hammer also profiled life on the rescue ship Phoenix (with photos of Dr. Bryant at work) in his Sept. 2015 piece for Outside Magazine. Below, I am including the story of the compass that Dr. Bryant submitted for our acquisition files:

The compass story submitted by Simon Bryant

On August 3rd 2015 at about 3 a.m.,103 adults and 15 children from fourteen countries embarked on a nine-metre inflatable raft in Libya and proceeded north, propelled by an old 40-horsepower outboard engine and the need to escape from violence, poverty, and persecution in their countries of origin.

Photo. Raft from Libya. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

Inflatable raft from Libya, August 3, 2015. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

They relied on this gimbaled marine compass, provided by the “smugglers” who organized their trip, to maintain a northerly bearing. It is typical of those found on many of the boats and rafts.

 (Ironically in most instances, cardboard packing inserts remained in place around the compasses themselves, as seen in the photograph below; They prevented the gimbal mechanism from keeping the compasses level regardless of the boats’ movement, and undoubtedly made it difficult to navigate a straight course…) [Below], a similar compass to the one in the museum collection, with (white) shipping cardboard still in place.

Photo:  compass with packing in place, photo by Gabriele Casini

Compass with packing in place, photo by Gabriele Casini

After a distress call was received, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome instructed the search and rescue vessel Phoenix, a collaboration between MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) and MSF (Medecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders) to proceed to the assistance of these people. They were subsequently intercepted without incident at 10 a.m. about 20 nautical miles north of Zuwara, Libya, at latitude 33 24 north, and longitude 011 57 east.

 The accompanying photo of the inflatable raft and its occupants was taken on first approach from the fast RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) dispatched from the Phoenix, just prior to lifejackets being provided to those in the raft.

 All aboard the raft were transferred by several shuttles of the RHIB to the Phoenix, where they received drinking water, food, dry clothing, and medical care as needed. Later the same day all those rescued were transferred to two Italian Coast Guard vessels, and taken to Italy. The Phoenix then returned to the search and rescue zone.

Country of origin, and number of rescued (15 children, 103 adults)

Nigeria 69; Ghana 15; Sudan 6; Gambia 5; Eritrea 4; Senegal 4; Guinea 3; Morocco 3; Mali 2; Niger 2; DRC 2; Libya 1


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