Sea-Watch rescued 165 migrants from distress at sea in two operations Wednesday, June 17, 2020 | Photo credit: Sea-Watch
Sea-Watch rescued 165 migrants from distress at sea in two operations Wednesday, June 17, 2020 | Photo credit: Sea-Watch

The German-run rescue organization Sea-Watch has picked up 165 migrants from rubber dinghies off the coast of Libya on Wednesday. Several migrants including women and children were in need of immediate medical attention, the NGO said.

In a first operation on Wednesday morning, almost 100 migrants were rescued around 29 nautical miles off Zawiya, west of the Libyan capital Tripoli, Sea Watch said on Twitter. Some were given immediate medical attention, among them women, children, as well as several injured. Injuries included chemical burns from the fuel-saltwater mixture in the dinghy, Sea-Watch wrote in a statement.

Sea-Watch added that Libyan coast guards would have returned the migrants to Libya if they had not brought them to safety first.

The organization also said that there were more people in need of help. "Our search plane Moonbird has spotted another boat in distress with around 70 people. The operation's not over yet," the NGO added.

Later on Wednesday, Sea-Watch announced it had picked up another 65 migrants from a rubber boat.

In a series of tweets the organization described the situation in the Mediterranean as "madness", as it was searching for two boats in distress, and the Moonbird aircraft spotted yet another boat in Malta's area of responsibility, close to Lampedusa. The Maltese and Italian authorities had been informed, according to a Sea-Watch tweet dated June 17, 6:57 pm.

Forced returns to Libya

According to the Italian humanitarian group Mediterranea Saving Humans which currently also patrols the central Mediterranean on board the Mare Jonio vessel, the Libyan coastguard "captured" another migrant boat earlier Wednesday near Tripoli, AFP reports.

In a statement they said: "Powerless, we witnessed the intervention of the Libyan militiamen ... in violation of every international convention, they pushed back dozens of refugees back to the bombs and torture they were trying to escape."

The coastguard vessel sped past the Mare Jonio to reach "a boat that was nearly immobile and therefore in obvious difficulty", they said.

When the Italian ship reached the dinghy, it was "empty... damaged and deflated, and as usual the engine was already gone."

Blocked at port

Sea-Watch resumed rescue operations earlier this month. It was the first private rescue organization to resume operations in the central Mediterranean after coronavirus restriction measures had halted humanitarian missions since March. Sea-Watch was shortly after joined by a Mediterranea Saving Humans vessel.

Both Italy and Malta closed their ports to migrants as the pandemic started to spread. This triggered criticism from human rights groups, which said that the pandemic was used as a pretext to block migrants and prevent them from entering their countries.

Over 400 migrants rescued by cargo vessels off Malta were put in weeks-long quarantine on offshore rented vessels. Others were intercepted and illegally returned to Libya, and some drowned at sea, dpa reports.

"After months in which refugees here were only confronted with the cold ignorance of the European border regime, we are glad to be able to save nearly 100 people from disappearing in a watery grave or in the detention centers of Libya today," Sea-Watch Head of Mission Philipp Hahn said in a statement after Wednesday's first rescue operation.

With AFP, dpa

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