Flemish midwife delivers refugees safely to shore


Dominique Luypaers, a midwife with Médecins Sans Frontières, is part of a team rescuing refugees as they try to reach Europe via the Mediterranean

Horrors at sea

As a child in the mid-1990s, Dominique Luypaers was struck by the horrific news reports she saw of the Rwandan genocide. It left such an impression on the 12-year-old that she resolved to become an aid worker when she was older. Twenty years on, she’s a midwife with Médecins Sans Frontières, and working on the frontline of the refugee crisis.

Luypaers is based on the Bourbon Argos, the largest of three MSF ships stationed in the Mediterranean as part of their search-and-rescue operation. Her latest stint on board lasted two months.

The job puts her 25 nautical miles off Libya, caught between two crises: the war and persecution refugees are fleeing in Africa and the Middle East, and the uncertainty they face on arrival in Europe after journeys of unimaginable difficulty.

“It’s terrible that we have to be there at all, that there is a need to rescue people from these crappy boats,” she says. “People shouldn’t be forced to take these dangerous routes in search of asylum. The entire journey, from their home country until they get into that tiny boat, is just horrible experience after horrible experience.”

On board, the day begins at first light, as staff take it in turns to watch for refugee boats in distress, poised to respond to emergency calls. When a boat is spotted, a smaller MSF vessel approaches with a team leader, a cultural mediator and a pile of life jackets on board. They introduce themselves, explain what will happen next and show people how to put on the jackets.

Kindness of strangers

“It’s important in terms of safety,” explains Luypaers, who is currently at home in Kapellen, near Antwerp, between missions. “If we approach directly with the big ship, it could create anxiety and panic. It’s a matter of life and death. If people begin to panic, they’ll jump in the water and they will drown. It can happen so quickly.”

The Bourbon Argos itself then approaches. People come up the ladder to the deck, where Luypaers and colleagues carry out triage, looking for obvious problems like vomiting, bleeding, limping or diarrhoea. “It sounds really tough,  but it’s the reality,” she says. “I smile a lot, welcome them, say ‘hello’ 1,000 times.”

These people have all been exposed to the same horrors while getting to this point, and it’s appalling. It’s a testimony of complete inhumanity

- Dominique Luypaers

That openness is the foundation for a relationship between patient and caregiver that can be easy to take for granted. “If you have that bond, you can make so much difference,” she says. “I’ve had people opening up with very intimate stories. It’s sad, but it also means a lot to me that I’m able to be there for them.”

Getting everyone on board can take 40 minutes, and it’s an intense and exhausting process. Even then, it’s not over; there’s every chance the crew will be called out to another location before they can transport people to Sicily, where the Italian authorities take over. Luypaers has just heard that her colleagues have picked up 10 boats in the same day, rescuing more than 1,000 people.

A small rubber dinghy can have 100 people crammed into it; a single wooden boat will be carrying hundreds. “These people are packed together. They’re not sitting nicely in a row, they’re all on top of each other, crushing each other,” she says.

“It’s dire. You can imagine that people lying on the bottom are in a bad state when we pick them up. There are people on the roof and in the hold, so there are problems with suffocation, petrol fumes, people sitting in petrol and suffering chemical burns.” 

Stark reality

As a midwife, she’s there as a focal point for women and children. The stories she hears are horrific. Women are setting off on dangerous crossings at seven and eight months pregnant, some just a week before they’re due to give birth. Luypaers’ colleagues on other missions have had to deliver babies on board, while miscarriages are not uncommon.

One pregnant woman began bleeding during the night while she was on an overloaded wooden boat. “Imagine it: you’re in pain, you’re bleeding and you can’t move, there’s nothing you can do,” Luypaers says. “By the time we picked her up, of course it was too late.” 

You could write a horror story from the things she’s seen and heard, she says, and what’s so sad is that it’s not fiction: it’s very much reality. “These people – young men, older men, families, women, young girls, babies – they are all literally in the same boat,” she says. “They’ve been exposed to the same horrors while getting to this point, and it’s appalling. It’s a testimony of complete inhumanity.”

For MSF, aside from immediate medical help, one of the most fundamental aspects of the mission is to give people some dignity back. “The majority have been treated like animals, like dirt,” Luypaers says. “We meet some basic needs, and we treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Photo: Sara Creta/MSF