How’s this for a business model? The smugglers of Libya cram as many people as possible aboard ramshackle dinghies and send them off across the Mediterranean. There’s virtually no chance that the boats will make the 300-mile journey to Europe; they will either sink, drowning all on board, or be intercepted by a rescue ship or naval vessel on patrol. But the outcome makes little difference to the smugglers, who are part of a more than $5 billion industry; either way, they get paid, and new passengers keep coming.
This is the very definition of a death-defying journey, which TIME correspondent Aryn Baker and photographer Lynsey Addario set out to tell for this issue and an ongoing multimedia project. Now that the refugee route from Turkey to Greece has all but closed down, more and more migrants are braving the far more dangerous Libya-to-Italy corridor. Aryn and Lynsey embedded with a rescue team from the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières on the MV Aquarius. It took their 77-ft., steel-clad, multi-engine surveying vessel 36 hours to reach Sicily from Libya. “The thought that these tiny, 40-horsepower-engine [migrant] boats, loaded with one tank of fuel, could make it anywhere would be laughable but for the number of lives at stake,” Aryn says, and indeed the death toll on the route has risen sharply this year, to 2,726 people.
These refugees came not just from the nightmare war zones of Syria and Sudan but from all across Africa. As dangerous as the sea journey is, Lynsey observes, “This is the least harrowing of their months- and years-long journey to date. 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.” At one point after intercepting a sinking trawler, there were 551 people aboard the Aquarius; Aryn handed out emergency rations, while Lynsey deployed her rudimentary Arabic to help calm frightened passengers.
“After almost two decades of covering people at their most vulnerable, I am often asked when is the appropriate time to put my cameras down and intervene in any given situation,” Lynsey says. Normally, her response is that she is not a doctor, and her mission is to tell the story to the larger world. But as the rescuers scrambled to pull some 400 people from one sinking boat, babies, toddlers and children were thrust from the crowd, one after another, passed along a chain of rescue workers. “When I pulled my camera away from my face, I realized everyone’s hands were full but mine,” Lynsey says, “and there was a startled boy at my feet–no more than 3 years old. The boat was jostling to the left and right, the sea splashing around us, and I thought of my son. I instinctively picked up the boy, letting my cameras dangle at my side, and undoubtedly missed some of the most important images of the day. But the situation was tense and precarious, and I knew what I needed to do then and there.”
This was Lynsey’s fourth journey on a search-and-rescue boat. She knows already it won’t be her last.
Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR
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This appears in the September 12, 2016 issue of TIME.