When​ we left Malta for the Libyan coast twenty hours away, two birds followed us. We were crewing aboard the Minden, a decommissioned 26-metre German coastguard patrol boat on the lookout for refugee rafts. At some point beyond sight of land, we realised these birds – suddenly our birds – were marooned, locked into a pattern of flight that went around our ship, then broke for the horizon only to return and circle again.

Birds die at sea. Seabirds – albatross, gulls, terns and the sea swallow – come to mind, of course. The petrel lives almost its entire life at sea, only touching land to lay and hatch its eggs. Land birds like warblers, wagtails and buntings build temporary homes in boats at harbour. When one of these boats leaves port, it carries its stowaway along with it. Half a day into open sea at a speed of 12 knots and the unsuspecting land birds soon discover themselves marooned until the ship stops at the next port. Or so it’s said. I have found no statistics to support this phenomenon, only the odd anecdote in maritime journals.

We’d been at sea for eight days, patrolling the Libyan coast from Zuwara to Sabratah alongside half a dozen other NGO vessels. Never coming closer to shore than 12 nautical miles – the invisible boundary demarking international waters – we could still distinguish structures through binoculars: tall buildings, power lines and an oil refinery marked out by its smoke during the day and its flare by night. When the winds finally dropped, the rafts came: an exodus of more than 11,000 refugees and migrants over a three-day period.

On the second morning, we brought three men aboard. On water, doctors triaged the sick, unconscious, pregnant and young, moving from raft to raft through the late afternoon. The three men had all inhaled and ingested petrol that had spilled into the water from the fuel line of their outboard motor. In one raft, we left a man cradling the head of another man, already dead for hours.

Two of the men recovered enough that we decided to transfer them at nightfall to an Italian coastguard vessel, which would take them to Lampedusa for processing. But the last man remained in a heaving, delirious fit all day. He was in his mid-twenties at most. I remember white teeth grimacing as though he were fighting some internal demon. The top layer of skin on his arms, back and thighs had half-peeled off, a telltale mark of chemical burns. Among 160 standing people, he’d fallen and lain for hours in the bottom of the rubber raft, where the shallow water had turned into an acidic mixture of spilled petrol and saltwater. One of the crew, a German nurse, tended to the dying man all afternoon. As she stood to check on him, I saw that she had a tattoo of a bird on her lower leg.

Increasingly incoherent, the man died at the back of the boat in perceptible pain but with little noise. We laid him out in the cabin on a stretcher and prepared a body bag. We searched his pockets for any kind of identification, any clue to his name, family, friends, age, home or destination. But he’d arrived in nothing more than a pair of swimming trunks and a shirt. Not even shoes.

All the while we watched out for our birds. We put out bits of biscuits and cups of water but they refused to eat or drink. We imagined they might leave us for one of the larger, better equipped NGO boats a few miles away, or even try to reach the Libyan coast. But they stayed with us, though their behaviour changed and they grew less wild. One flew into the cabin, and allowed me to carry it by my finger to the window. I had never been that close to a wild bird before.

When the Irish patrol vessel Samuel Beckett arrived in darkness to take the dead man from our boat, there was no ritual, only a haphazard transfer by stretcher as the winds picked up. We passed over a single slip of paper with the only information we knew of him. Just the date and time of his death – 3 Oct, 1445 hours – and the co-ordinates: 33° 11' N 12° 25' E.

Shortly afterwards, a bird landed on our captain’s shoulder as he stood on the flying bridge to spot more rafts. I took a photograph. He told us that, marooned like this, birds gradually weaken physically, but grow more accustomed to the boat’s human passengers. Not because they like us but because they realise they are dying and don’t want to be alone. I remembered that in Ancient Egypt the bird was a symbol of death and passage to the next world.

On the last day of the refugee exodus we were hailed by the Astral, a sailboat operated by a Spanish NGO. They needed help and body bags for a raft they’d rescued the previous day. They had managed to save 130 of its passengers, but because of the sheer number of refugee boats that day, and because there was no other NGO or EU ship to leave them with, the Astral had been forced to tow the raft and its cargo of 26 dead.

We arrived in late morning dressed in hazmat suits, face masks and two layers of latex gloves that we were told to tape down. I breathed heavily through my mask. The bodies had already begun to bloat. Aboard the raft, a man in yellow shorts lay splayed on top of a dozen dead.

When I returned to Malta a few days later, I recognised this raft in photos published in newspapers. Not at the scene I tended to, but at the moment of rescue a day before. In one photo, three men in lifejackets make their way off the raft unsteadily because of the half-naked dead piled up all around them. The man in yellow shorts is there, but someone has covered his face with a blue shirt. Three other men, still alive, huddle at the back of the raft with lifejackets. Another raft of refugees waits in the far distance.

When I look at this photograph, I see something very different from the hamstrung raft I worked on bagging the dead. In the photo, one of the raft’s punctured chambers hadn’t yet collapsed. There is no sign of the posthumous flotsam I discovered: the plastic shell of a mobile phone, a passport photo and countless already disintegrating slips of paper that might once have shown the names and phone numbers of families waiting for news.

There are more than seventy cemeteries in Italy, Turkey and Greece where the unnamed refugee and migrant dead lie. In some, they are laid alongside generations of local families. Others are simpler – hastily dug graves, a modest marker. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the way through the Sahara Desert from Niger into Libya is dotted with shallow graves and abandoned bodies.

But what happens to the dead at sea, the refugees and migrants who don’t make the twenty-mile sprint past the Libyan coastguard and fishermen preying on overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats and rafts? Perhaps it matters that witnesses are present. Not just to retell the story of the survivors and the risks they faced but to recount the terms of the dead as a warning, to prevent them becoming an afterthought, like the pair of dead birds we found on our portside railing.

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