Migrants pass the life jackets being handed out by the search-and-rescue teams with Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée off the coast of Libya, Aug. 21, 2016.
Migrants pass the life jackets being handed out by the search-and-rescue teams with Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée off the coast of Libya, Aug. 21, 2016.Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
Migrants pass the life jackets being handed out by the search-and-rescue teams with Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée off the coast of Libya, Aug. 21, 2016.
Hundreds of migrants wait to be rescued, as search-and-rescue teams circle the boat, off the coast of Libya, Aug. 21, 2016.
A rescue worker cradles a young child to safety, Aug. 21, 2016.
Discarded life jackets, clothing and trash in the empty leaking vessel after the rescue in the Mediterranean, Aug. 21, 2016.
The deck of the empty leaking vessel after the rescue in the Mediterranean, Aug. 21, 2016.
Victoria, a 42-year-old Nigerian migrant and her son Victor are transferred to the MV Aquarius, minutes after they were rescued with more than 130 others on a rubber boat in the Mediterranean, Aug. 20, 2016.
Search and rescue staff and medics jointly run by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée on the MV Aquarius rescue migrants in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya, Aug. 20, 2016.
Migrants on the rubber boat in Mediterranean are rescued, Aug. 20, 2016.
A migrant wearing a "Survivor" shirt, Aug. 21, 2016.
Eritrean Orthodox Christian men sing and pray after their rescue, Aug. 21, 2016.
Eritrean Orthodox Christian women sing and give thanks on the MV Aquarius, Aug. 21, 2016.
A group of men sleep on MV Aquarius ship after being rescued by search-and-rescue teams jointly operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée, Aug. 21, 2016.
Migrants settle on the deck of the MV Aquarius ship on the eve of the rescue, Aug. 21, 2016.
Muslim migrants preparing for prayer on the deck of the MV Aquarius ship, Aug. 22, 2016.
A migrant stands on the deck of the MV Aquarius, the morning after being rescued. Aug. 22, 2016.
Women and children eat and rest below the deck of the rescue ship. Aug. 22, 2016.
A hungry Eritrean woman reaches for bread at breakfast, the morning after being rescued Aug. 22, 2016.
A young migrant shows off the wound on his head where he was hit by gun butts less than a week before, Aug. 22, 2016.
Muslim migrants in prayer on the deck of the MV Aquarius, Aug. 22, 2016.
A young migrant woman rests on the deck as the ship sails to Italy, Aug. 23, 2016.
Migrants approaching the coast of Sicily, two days after they were rescued, Aug. 23, 2016.
Migrants look on pensively as they approach the Italian coast, Aug. 23, 2016.
A Nigerian migrant, Goodness, age 20, holds her young daughter Destiny, as she waits to disembark at the Catania port, Sicily, Aug. 23, 2016.
Migrants pass the life jackets being handed out by the search-and-rescue teams with Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méd
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Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
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Migrants' Last Hope: A Rescue on the Mediterranean Sea

Aug 31, 2016

More than 106,000 migrants have attempted to make the perilous boat crossing from Libya to Italy this year. Had it not been for a multi-national rescue effort made up of international navies, humanitarian aid agencies, commercial vessels and various coast guards, most of them would have perished in the Mediterranean. As it is, at least 2,726 have died this year already, more than the total for all of 2015.

Unscrupulous Libyan smugglers stuff the migrants, coming from the warzones, refugee camps, and impoverished villages of the Middle East and Africa, into unseaworthy dinghies and send them out to sea with barely enough fuel to make it into international waters. Abandoned, alone and in most cases unable to swim, the migrants depend on this network of search and rescue operations to save their lives and bring them safely to European shores.

When Lynsey Addario and I decided to spend time with Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée on their search and rescue vessel, the MV Aquarius, we expected to document tales of heroic bravery and survival against the odds. What we didn’t expect to find was that for most of these migrants, the Mediterranean sea crossing was but the final step in a long, arduous journey filled with even greater risks along the way.

Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIMEAddario took pictures of the rescued migrants, which she then gave to them. Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME 

When the migrants were pulled aboard after one particularly epic rescue, on Aug. 21, we had 551 survivors from 14 different countries as far away as Bangladesh, on board. They ranged in age from three months to 52 years. They were fleeing abusive families, clan conflict, sectarian violence, persecution, poverty, war and tyranny—all the world’s traumas funneled onto southern Mediterranean shores.

They were teachers, cobblers, bulldozer drivers, masons and farmers. And while they grew up worlds apart, they had one thing in common: they were willing to risk their lives for the dream of a better life in Europe. “There are few things as leveling as watching and photographing hundreds of people barely afloat in the Mediterranean, and knowing that this is the least harrowing of their months and years’ long journey to date,” says Addario. “They have been tortured, bound, gang-raped, trafficked, humiliated, starved, and thrust into the open seas, and we come upon them often as the first ally since they left home.”

In the rescue efforts and the care the MV Aquarius’ crew put into looking after their temporary charges, we found the heroism we were looking for. But in the stories of the migrants we met along the way, we started learning about true bravery. No one risks death, torture or starvation on a whim. People were leaving home because they simply had no choice. As long as they can find a way, through smugglers and sheer grit, they will keep taking those risks. And boats like the MV Aquarius will be standing by to make sure they don’t die in the process.

Lynsey Addario, a frequent TIME contributor, is a photographer represented by Getty Images Reportage.

Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Africa Bureau Chief. Follow her on Twitter @arynebaker.

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