Norfolk volunteer helps save more than 800 migrants from Mediterranean

Paul Chamberlain, from Banham, is a member of the Norfolk Lowland Search and Rescue service. Picture

Paul Chamberlain, from Banham, is a member of the Norfolk Lowland Search and Rescue service. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

When Paul Chamberlain saw the scenes of desperation as thousands of migrants risked their lives to reach Europe by sea, he knew he had to help.

Paul Chamberlain has returned from Mediterranean after helping to rescue more than 800 migrants. Pic

Paul Chamberlain has returned from Mediterranean after helping to rescue more than 800 migrants. Picture: Jason Florio/MOAS - Credit: Jason Florio/MOAS

Just months later and the 43-year-old was aboard a converted fishing trawler in the Mediterranean saving hundreds of people from the water.

In the space of just two weeks, the father-of-three from Banham helped rescue almost 850 individuals as they travelled from Libya to Italy.

They included pregnant women, children and elderly people – all packed inside rubber dinghies by traffickers operating in the area.

Mr Chamberlain, who returned back from the expedition just over a week ago, has now described his experience.

Migrants attempting to cross to Italy from Syria. Picture: Paul Chamberlain

Migrants attempting to cross to Italy from Syria. Picture: Paul Chamberlain - Credit: Paul Chamberlain.

'The most shocking this is when you see the first boat for the first time and you think 'this is real, this is happening'', he said.

'There is a realisation that these are real people. That they are not just migrants, they are people with real lives and real stories.

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'And to put themselves into that position, they must have to be pretty desperate.'

Mr Chamberlain – vice-chairman of Norfolk Lowland Search and Rescue – was volunteering with the charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).

Migrants attempting to cross to Italy from Syria. Picture: Paul Chamberlain

Migrants attempting to cross to Italy from Syria. Picture: Paul Chamberlain - Credit: Paul Chamberlain.

Setting off from Malta on June 6, he was aboard one of two ships heading south of Bouri offshore oil fields near Libya.

During his time at sea, they discovered 18 boats, containing some 2,000 people in total, with around 120 packed into each one.

'We came across victims of torture,' Mr Chamberlain said. 'One guy had both index figures hacked off by Boko Haram. He said they were cut off because they were his trigger fingers.

'There was one woman who was eight months pregnant, children, and one guy who was disabled from the waist down. It is an absolute eye-opener.

'Another man, who was 65, he had been a civil engineer and lost his wife during a bombing raid in Damascus. He spent a year travelling to Libya and all he had left was his son.'

The charity used drones to fly from its ships in order to spot any boats with migrants on them.

Once they have been located, teams move in and equip them with life jackets before pulling them aboard.

Mr Chamberlain said the migrants were then transported to navy vessels and taken back to shore.

'MOAS is not a migrant ferry to bring people into Europe,' he added. 'All we are interested in is bringing people to safety.

'What happens to them when they get to Italy was not for us to decide.'

During his time out at sea, Mr Chamberlain said he had to dive in and rescue seven people who had fallen overboard.

And despite the sheer numbers of migrants found over the two weeks, there were no deaths.

It was the second time this year that he had gone out to volunteer with the charity.

In April, he was aboard a responder boat in the Aegean Sea, near the Greek island of Samos.

He said: 'I never felt any sort of heroism. I just felt it was the right thing to do and it is just about being human.'

To hear more about his experiences, email Chamberlainpc@aol.com

Visit www.moas.eu for more information about the charity and how to get involved.

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