We are standing on the huge deck of the Geo Barents rescue ship, where hundreds of people are waiting to start a new life.

The boat docked in Bari at breakfast time, pulling into the port accompanied by a police boat on one side and a coastguard vessel on the other. And about an hour later, people started disembarking.

The first were the very young, the sick and the injured. Then the rest of the children were led down.

All of them were given a temperature test at the bottom of the gangway; some were then put in the big water paper suits that we all remember from COVID. Everyone was presented with flip-flops and shoes by the Italian Red Cross.

But this disembarkation process is, unsurprisingly, slow and laborious. The Italian government wants to do everything it can to slow, and eventually reverse, the dramatic rise in migrants arriving on its shores.

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What is the Geo Barents rescue ship?

So the health examinations take time. After them come the security checks, the finger-printing and an array of other things. “Welcome to Italy, but don’t imagine we’re going to make it easy”.

Which is why, hours after the process started, there are still hundreds of people left milling around in the Geo Barents – killing time but getting gradually more frustrated, anxious and irritable.

Which makes it all the more striking when the music strikes up.

From the PA system at the front comes the strains of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. And alongside it, Mattia, one of the Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) staff, is singing along, waving his arms with gusto, imploring this room full of people to embrace opera.

At first, they look at him in some bewilderment. But then come smiles, and a few claps and before long people are on their feet applauding. Mattia, now a little sheepish, takes a bow.

It’s worked. People are now smiling and then, bustling through, comes Simon, a Belgian nurse who’s holding his trumpet. He smiles and starts playing and he plays really well. Everyone loves it.

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Aftermath of mass migrant rescue

Within 20 minutes, there is music being played through the system – I think it’s Egyptian pop – and people are dancing together. Don’t ever think that music doesn’t have the most extraordinary power.

The queue moves slowly. Hamdi, who we met in the hours after the rescue, comes and says hello. Eventually, his turn comes up and we follow his path. His friend, Elsaady, is in the group behind.

Hamdi walks up the stairs and waits to be called forward. Like everyone else, he’s wearing a surgical mask, issued by MSF but mandated by the Italian authorities, along with the clothes that were given to him when he got on the boat.

His kit included a black hat, which he wears all the time. But behind his mask, I can see he’s smiling.

He shows the MSF staff the numbered wristband given to all the survivors and they cross him off their list. And then he walks forward, out of the door and towards the gangplank

He tells me he’s happy, excited and “I feel like I’m home”. He’s a smart guy – multilingual and resourceful – and he’s researched enough to know that not everyone in Italy – or Europe – will welcome migrants like him.

“But this is my chance at a second life,” he insists. “I feel so good.”

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On board the mission to rescue 600 people from fishing boat

And with that, he’s off, down the gangplank and, as his foot touches the quay, into Europe.

The queue goes along, but always slowly. By 11pm, after more than 14 hours of disembarkation, there are still a hundred people left on board the Geo Barents. They look exhausted and so do the MSF workers.

This has been a voyage like no other – a rescue that has stretched the resources of the ship and the stamina of the MSF staff, who’ve had to care for more than 600 people by creating a makeshift refugee camp at sea.

Now, everyone is tired. It may be time to put some music on.

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