Two pilots spend savings on plane to rescue migrants in Mediterranean Sea


José Benavente, right, and Benoit Micolon founded Pilotes Volontaires to scan the Mediterranean for migrant vessels in distress.Isabelle Serro/Pilotes Volontaires

Two French pilots, José Benavente and Benoit Micolon, have bought a plane with their own savings to rescue migrants at sea.

Their first mission on May 12 proved a turning point for rescue efforts at sea when Benavente and Micolon spotted two boats.

According to NBC, the first was empty. It had been marked “SAR 12/05/18,” indicating the migrants had been rescued earlier in the day. The other, a Zodiac inflatable boat with over 100 people on board, was in the midst of its own rescue operation.

After six hours and 870 miles in the air, Benavente and Micolon returned to Malta satisfied.

“Today was rich in emotion,” they posted on the Facebook page of their aid group, Pilotes Volontaires (Volunteer Pilots). “After three months of preparation, we were finally able to carry out our first surveillance flight.”

Benavente, 49, has been involved in humanitarian work for 25 years. He told NBC News he’d been mulling how to put his passion for flying to good use since first hearing of migrants dying at sea some 15 years ago while stationed in Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The haunting image of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015, spurred him into action and he began following the work of nonprofit groups in the Mediterranean.


Image: Pilotes VolontairesPilotes Volontaires made their first flight over the Mediterranean on May 12. Isabelle Serro/Pilotes Volontaires

They named their single-engined MCR 4 plane “Colibri” — “Hummingbird” — after a Native American legend in which a hummingbird tries to stop a forest fire by picking up water and putting it, drop by drop, onto the burning trees. Asked by other animals what it is doing, the little bird replies: “I’m doing what I can.”

The friends raced against the clock to get their venture off the ground by May, when favorable weather conditions bring a surge in the number of migrants boats — and with it, the death toll.


Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 1072 in first week of 2018; Deaths Reach 81

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, reports that 1,072 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea during the first week of 2018, with around 450 each landing in Italy and Greece and the remainder in Spain. This compares with almost an identical number – 1,159 – coming ashore during a similar period in 2017.


Data on deaths at sea, however, are much grimmer.  Through the first eight days of the new year, a total of 81 Mediterranean Sea deaths of irregular migrants or refugees were recorded. Five of those deaths were in Western Mediterranean waters off Spain and Morocco.

The rest – 76 with a possibility of many more – were recorded in the waters between Italy and Libya. IOM recorded just 26 migrant deaths on Mediterranean Sea lanes during the month of December.

IOM Rome’s Flavio Di Giacomo reported Monday (8 January) that IOM staff gathering testimony of survivors of a shipwreck that occurred Saturday morning determined that 64 people lost their lives after leaving Libya on a rubber dinghy reportedly carrying 150 men, women and children. The Italian Coast Guard Ship ‘Diciotti’ rescued 86 migrants who survived to the incident, while recovering the remains of eight others, with the balance – believed to be 64 people – now lost at sea.

Survivors arriving in the port of Catania, Siciliy, on Monday morning provided the following details of the incident: the migrants left from Garabuli (Libya) after midnight between Friday and Saturday morning. After some eight to nine hours at sea, their over-crowded craft began to take on water. Many panicked and fell into the water.

A Coast Guard ship arrived almost immediately and managed to rescue 86 people while recovering the remains of six women and two men.  The migrants on board came mainly from Sierra Leone, Mali, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Nigeria.


According to testimony gathered by IOM in Catania, at least five of the missing are children between the ages of two and six. Among the survivors are four 4 children – aged two, three, nine and 10. The three-year-old child, a girl, is said to have lost her mother in the tragedy.

A second incident off the Libyan coast this weekend reportedly claimed the lives of 12 more migrants. IOM Libya’s Christine Petré reported Monday that there was one rescue at sea operation over the weekend in Libyan territory.

She explained: “On Sunday (7 January), 270 migrants (159 men, 53 women, 46 boys and 12 girls) received humanitarian emergency assistance after spending two days at sea off the Libyan coast as they attempted to reach Italy by boat. The surviving migrants received food and water; health and vulnerability needs were attended to at the disembarkation point in Tripoli. The remains of two female bodies were found as well, with the cause of death unknown. According to witnesses, 10 migrants lost their lives at sea prior to the rescue operation.”

Petré later reported on a second operation taking place Monday morning, explaining that 135 migrants (81 men, 49 women, three boys and two girls) were detected off Tripoli, brought to shore and then transferred to Trig al Seka detention centre in Tripoli.