A Perilous Crossing

In 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants faced a dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea. Desperate to reach safety in Europe, they were fleeing war, persecution and instability in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Pakistan.

One in five was a child.

More than 3,600 people died while attempting the crossing, crammed onto decrepit boats and inadequate rafts.

Rescue workers lift a baby wearing a life jacket from a small inflatable boat into a ship.
Photo by MSF/Anna Surinyach

A Perilous Crossing, an exhibit in the Rights Today gallery, offers a moving and thought-provoking look at the rescue of migrants at sea during this harrowing crisis. It features video, photographs and artifacts collected during rescue operations carried out by humanitarian workers from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and Migrant Offshore Aid Station.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders rescued more than 20,000 people in eight months at sea in 2015.

A video captures the human drama as aid workers find boats overloaded with frightened, dehydrated migrants and transport them to safety. A baby rescued from a capsizing boat is reunited with its mother.

Three women in African headdresses sit in a small, inflatable boat as a large rescue ship approaches.
Photo by MOAS/Jason Florio

Several artifacts were recovered from rafts. They are tangible reminders of the enormous risks taken by despairing migrants and refugees. For example:

  • A plastic inflatable vest worn by a child who was rescued. Printed on the vest is a warning: “Not a lifesaving device.” Human smugglers often supply unsafe equipment that is not intended for survival at sea.
  • A plastic compass that was the only navigation tool found in an inflatable boat sailing from Libya to Italy. There were 118 people on board.

“We hope that the artifacts . . . will remind Canadians not only of the thousands of lives tragically lost at sea, but also that the migrant crisis we are seeing in Europe is but the tip of an iceberg: over 60 million people are uprooted by conflict and chaos around the world today,” said Stephen Cornish, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders Canada.

A Perilous Crossing was created by the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, with the cooperation of the Canada Science and Technology Museum and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.