Deadly fake Chanel lifejackets sold to the desperate

People smugglers in the Mediterranean have found a new, grotesque way to exploit their customer-victims: "Chanel" lifejackets.

Libyan traffickers sell these fakes to sub-Saharan refugees, flashing the gold Chanel-branded lining under the neon orange exterior and demanding a premium price.

Chanel confirmed to Fairfax it does not make lifejackets.

The traffickers' deception is cynical and deadly: jackets are packed with cheap foam, if submerged they fill with water, turn into deadweights and drag the wearer under the waves.

"You can be the best swimmer in the world but you can't really swim with a straitjacket on, and that's essentially what these things are," says Simon Lewis, a St Kilda lifesaver who has spent much of 2017 trying to save refugee lives in one of the most popular and deadly migrant routes on the planet.

"The smugglers are smart because they've learnt the system of how to make money from everything, and try to scam everyone, to get every last dollar out of them before they send them to their death.

"They don't care about lives, they're just herding cattle and making money off it."

Lewis saw the fake Chanel lifejackets firsthand, as he pulled refugees from the southern Mediterranean. He is one of a handful of Australians who have been patrolling this route in 2017, on charity-funded ships that aim to plug the holes in the official search-and-rescue network.

In the last month Lewis reached a new level of authority: head of mission. On the MV Lifeline, funded by the German charity Mission Lifeline, he was the boss.

He was excited by the promotion. But command comes with a heavy burden of responsibility, and last month he faced a terrible choice.

"For 24 hours I thought I'd killed 17 people," he says.

He wonders still if they did die.

On October 23, the Lifeline got a call from the MRCC, the maritime rescue co-ordination centre in Rome.

"Seventeen migrants had left the coast off [Libya's capital] Tripoli and were about 5?? hours away from us," Lewis recalls. "We were told we were the only boat to rescue them - we were told there were no other options."

But the Lifeline was already bolting for safe harbour. The Mediterranean - a balmy bathtub in summer - was frothing into a nasty autumn storm. Lightning was flashing over the sea. The waves were two metres high and rising. They would have to turn about and sail into the storm.

"I had to make probably the hardest decision of my life," says Lewis. "[It] will stay with me."

The storm was building. The waves at the heart of it could be five metres high. The RHIB dinghy used for rescues would have sunk and the Lifeline would have struggled.

"My executive job was to decide who lives and who dies," Lewis says. "I was either going to kill 17 refugees or put my crew in extreme danger. It was the best shitty decision ... a calculated, easy decision."

But as they sped for harbour he, and his crew, had an image in their minds of a small, overcrowded rubber boat behind them, packed with refugees in the middle of the storm. They imagined the fear and panic the refugees would be feeling, alone in the sea.

The next day Lewis called the duty manager at the MRCC. It wasn't normal protocol, he says, but he had to ask: what happened?

"He goes 'Oh, they got rescued and they're on their way to Italy'. I don't actually know if that's legit ... I just didn't want to have the conversation. So I don't know how some magical ship came out of nowhere to rescue them ... it blows our mind, that, after we were told we were the only asset."

Lewis took the best traditions and procedures of Australian lifesaving into the Mediterranean. In 2016 he set up a rapid response group on the Greek island of Lesbos, pulling Syrian refugees from the water between Turkey and Greece.

"We used Australian knowledge and Australian values," Lewis says. "It makes me proud."

But on board the southern Mediterranean NGO ships in 2017 it was a much more complicated situation.

Rescue ships have been accused of colluding with people smugglers, and Italian prosecutors are investigating whether charges can be laid. Charities have been accused of entering Libyan waters to pick up smuggler "deliveries".

Lewis says he knew he would be under intense scrutiny.

"Our friends one day can be turning against us the next," he says. "It's very political ... I get death threats, I get crazy people commenting and facing up to me ... I know I'm targeted, I know our phones are hacked, I know that I'm watched, I'm a big boy and I know this is what the scenario is."

He has nothing to hide, he says.

"We publicise exactly what we're doing ... you can get on the internet and see exactly where our boat is, we have film crews on board. We're like Big Brother on a ship."

Europe is toying with an Australian-style "turn back the boats" policy, in response to the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean in the last couple of years.

While it rescues refugee boats in international waters, Italy has sent its navy into Libyan waters to help the local coastguard intercept boats just after they leave the shore.

Lewis believes European navies are involved in a sophisticated operation to block NGO rescues.

"The navy would patrol in front of us, closer to the shoreline, and use their powerful radar to pick up any boat movement and then send the Libyan coastguard to intercept them and send them back to Libya," he says.

His crew would watch helplessly as the refugees jumped into the water as they realised the approaching boat was Libyan, not European.

They have recorded the encounters and radio communications, and intend to present them to the European Parliament.

On one occasion, Lewis says, a Spanish navy ship blocked them for a whole day to ensure they performed no rescues.

"We had unknown warships visit us in the night, that stalked us in stealth mode," Lewis says. "As soon as we did a 180-degree turn to say hello, they immediately sped away at 37 knots in the shadow of the moon. It was a very smart, sophisticated navy operation."

As an Australian, Lewis says he understands the "stop the boats" policy. But it just cannot apply to the Mediterranean, he says.

The people he rescues have been raped and tortured in Libya, burned with acid, shot, exploited, traumatised. His ship sailed past a Libyan city engulfed in civil war, seeing the smoke, hearing the gunfire. He cannot imagine that sending refugees back into this is the right thing to do.

Lewis is not the only Australian working to rescue refugees on the Mediterranean, as the seas turn grey and the boats keep coming.

Madeleine Habib is the search and rescue co-ordinator on the SOS Mediterranee rescue ship Aquarius - at sea, over the radio, she and Lewis shared experiences and advice. Habib is a Greenpeace veteran who has worked across the world from Yemen to Macquarie Island. In a September blog post she said she picked up a love of the sea in the Whitsundays, where her parents lived, and dreamed that she could combine this with humanitarian work.

Madeleine Habib on the Aurora Australis in 2013.

Madeleine Habib on the Aurora Australis in 2013. Photo: Colin Cosier

"Nobody on board the Aquarius is here to judge why people have fled their home," she said. "But people don't leave their home unless they have a very good reason.

"We don't judge whose life it is, or what it is they are fleeing, [we] are here simply to save their lives."

Also on board the Aquarius is Lauren King, 33, from Sydney, who is working with Medecins Sans Frontieres to care for those pulled from the sea. Earlier this month they rescued 588 people in just one day - three rubber boats overloaded with men, women and young children collapsed, spilling their human cargo into the sea.

But King says rescues are rarer these days - in April they were "constant", but by late northern summer fewer boats came from Libya, thanks to the coastguard and Italian navy.

Nevertheless, people are still trying to flee "hell". And as the weather turns colder, hypothermia is a risk as well as drowning.

"But people tell us they would rather risk their lives trying to escape Libya than stay there one more day," King says. "If their boat is intercepted by the Libyan coastguard they try to take the journey again.

"I recently spoke to a woman, it was the second time she tried to take a rubber boat. The first time she had three children and they all drowned in front of her. She was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, and she tried again a few months later. People are risking their lives again and again. Nobody gets on these boats unless they have no choice."

Intercepting boats just "keeps these people out of sight", King says.

Those rescued have stories of arbitrary detention in squalid conditions, torture, abuse, rape of men and women. The scars on the refugees' bodies are testament to their claims.

"One young man from Sudan spoke of being bought and sold several times, they're treated as commodities," King says.

Come hell or high water, the evil trade continues.

This story Deadly fake Chanel lifejackets sold to the desperate first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.