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Aid worker sees first hand tragic situation of desperate refugee families


A landing craft transporting migrants back to HMS Bulwark after their rescue in the Mediterranean Sea (Ministry of Defence/PA)

A landing craft transporting migrants back to HMS Bulwark after their rescue in the Mediterranean Sea (Ministry of Defence/PA)

A landing craft transporting migrants back to HMS Bulwark after their rescue in the Mediterranean Sea (Ministry of Defence/PA)

A British humanitarian worker has told how he rescued hundreds of desperate refugees "packed like sardines" on a small fishing boat as they risked their lives making the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean.

Will Turner, 32, an emergency co-ordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), found 332 migrants, including 100 children, crammed on to a single boat bobbing in distress barely above the water.

They were rescued and are being taken to Italy, but Mr Turner said he had seen hundreds of others die trying to make the journey.

He told the Press Association: "We came along two wooden boats, the traditional wooden fishing boats of north Africa. They are about 10 metres long with no cabin on top and a deck with hundreds of people crammed in like sardines.

"Beneath in the hold you have these awful conditions where people are crammed into a very tight space with an amazing amount of heat from the engine, having lots of bodies in the air, and the Mediterranean summer.

"There is very little air. Often people get into great difficulty, either because the boat starts to take water or people suffocate and overcome with asphyxiation.

"Just last week we responded to a similar boat. Sadly we found dozens of bodies in the hold of the boat - 52 people tragically died."

More than 2,500 people have died so far this year attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean by boat.

Mr Turner, who grew up in Cheshire and has been working aboard the Phoenix boat rescuing migrants since early May, said what strikes him is the incredible vulnerability of the people out at sea.

He said: "You could have 300-600 people in a boat bobbing away. One minute they are there and next minute there could be a freak wave and a panic of people rushing to one side and that can be the difference in a minute between those people being alive, and them perishing.

"These are families, young children. We have over 110 children on board our boat - it is more like a creche than a rescue boat. They are running around and colouring in books and playing games.

"These are normal families coming from situations in which they have no choice but to flee. What a sad tragedy that they are fleeing for their lives once and then risking it all again trying to get to safety."

He has seen much tragedy in the past four months, but says the tale of one young family fleeing jihadists in the besieged neighbourhood of Yamuk in Damascus sticks in his mind.

After five years of bombing and violence the parents fled with their two and four year-olds, put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and made the journey across the Mediterranean.

Mr Turner added: "I said to them why do you take the risk? Why do you risk the lives of your small children? They said they had no other choice.

"And that's the sad reality. There is no safe or legal alternative. People are willing to risk their lives because their situations in their home countries are untenable, and they are willing to gamble knowing that many people do die.

"That is a tragic situation from Europe and its member states, who uphold human rights as a moral value. It's shameful."

Mr Turner accused David Cameron of "betraying the nation" by not letting more refugees into Britain, and said the crisis should trigger soul-searching among Europeans.

He said: "Where have we gone wrong since the Second World War?

"How many tragic images of children dying needlessly do we need to see before politicians get out from hiding under the sheets and really face up to the situation?"