Debris from a dinghy which was supposedly carrying over 100 migrants are seen floating in the Mediterranean Sea northeast of the Libyan capital Tripoli on Thursday, April 22, 2021 | Photo: Flavio Gasperini/SOS Méditerranée
Debris from a dinghy which was supposedly carrying over 100 migrants are seen floating in the Mediterranean Sea northeast of the Libyan capital Tripoli on Thursday, April 22, 2021 | Photo: Flavio Gasperini/SOS Méditerranée

Migrant aid groups, the Pope and the UN have denounced the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean which likely claimed the lives of 130 migrants. Libya's coast guard rejected allegations of not doing enough to help.

Last week's deadly shipwreck northeast of the Libyan capital Tripoli, which likely claimed the lives of 130 migrants, has sparked shock and outrage among NGOs, the Vatican and the United Nations.

The dinghy had capsized by the time migrant rescue ship Ocean Viking, operated by aid organization SOS Mediterranee, reached the site last Thursday (April 22) together with three merchant vessels that complied with requests from Italy and Libya to lend assistance. The Ocean Viking crew found several bodies, one of them hunched over a life belt, but no survivors. All estimated 130 passengers are believed to have drowned.

SOS Mediterranee, Sea-Watch and other private rescue groups active in the Mediterranean lamented the loss of lives and accused EU authorities of knowing that the boat was in distress and refusing to help.

SOS Mediterranee's Italy director-general Valeria Taurino in an interview with Italian Rai state TV called on Europe "to take up its responsibilities'' and not to block NGO rescue boats from operating. According to SOS Mediterranee, there was neither "coordination by a state rescue centre" nor "support from the competent maritime authorities."

On Monday (April 26), Italian daily newspaper la Reppublica published a letter authored by SOS Mediterranee, Alarm Phone and six other sea rescue NGOs. In the letter, the charities asked the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi for a meeting to discuss "concrete initiatives … to ensure coordinated and timely rescue interventions … so that saving lives once again becomes a priority and unacceptable tragedies such as the shipwrecks of these days never happen again."

Draghi's early April visit to Libya prompted criticism from a number of lawmakers and NGOs when he praised the work of Libya's coast guard.

Over the weekend, people in more than 20 German cities commemorated the lives lost in the shipwreck and demonstrated against the EU's migration policy. SOS Mediterranee and civil society initiative Seebrücke ("sea bridge"), which organized the protests, also criticized the German government's support of Irini, the EU operation monitoring the arms embargo against Libya. Despite having been active in the Mediterranean since March 2020, it has not rescued any migrants.

Pope, UN lament inaction

"Abandoned and buried at sea'' read the headline across a photo of the sea on the front page of the Saturday edition of Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

Calling the shipwreck a "moment of shame," Pope Francis on Sunday somberly built on the newspaper's denunciation. "We pray for these brothers and sisters ... who for two whole days begged in vain for help. Help that never came,'' he told the public in St. Peter's Square. "Let us pray ... for those who can help but who prefer to look the other way," he added.

The UN migration and refugee agencies also decried the shipwreck, which they said was "avoidable". In an online statement published on Friday, both IOM and UNHCR said they were "deeply disturbed" about what they called the "largest loss of life recorded" in the central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year.

The agencies urged the international community to reactivate "search and rescue operations" in the Mediterranean, improve "coordination with all rescue actors," stop "returns to unsafe ports" as well as create "a safe and predictable disembarkation mechanism."

According to the IOM, at least 357 people have died during the attempt to cross the central Mediterranean between January 1 and April 23 this year.

Bad weather prevented rescue, Frontex says

Distress hotline Alarm Phone first announced the existence of the severely overcrowded boat on Wednesday (April 21). Alarm Phone said it was in contact with the dinghy over a period of 10 hours on Wednesday, and "repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation on board to European and Libyan authorities and the wider public.''

"Only non-state actors actively searched for the boat in distress at sea," Alarm Phone said in an online statement last Thursday -- although a spotter plane operated by EU border agency Frontex located an overcrowded ship in the sea north of Libya on Wednesday and despite pleas for help from the occupants.

It had alerted Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities after one of its patrol planes spotted the dinghy, Frontex told the Associated Press (AP). The agency's spokesman Krzysztof Borowski blamed the incident on bad weather. "Unfortunately, the deadly weather that occurred over the last few days in that area made it almost impossible to do any type of rescue mission,'' he told AP.

Migrants on board an overcrowded rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea waiting to be rescued by the Open Arms charity ship on February 12, 2021 | Photo: Bruno Thevenin/picture alliance/dpa/AP
Migrants on board an overcrowded rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea waiting to be rescued by the Open Arms charity ship on February 12, 2021 | Photo: Bruno Thevenin/picture alliance/dpa/AP


The traffickers were particularly reckless to launch the doomed dinghy in such conditions, Borowski said. "There were massive waves, two to three meters high. It was almost guaranteed that a rubber dinghy would overturn and people al end up in the sea.''

According to AP, Italy has "repeatedly kept charity rescue ships in port for weeks for administrative inspections after the vessels brought rescued migrants to Italian shores."

The Italian coast guard on Sunday announced it together with a "motor ship" on Saturday had helped an "overcrowded motorized fishing boat" off Italy that was "struggling in towering waves and stiff winds," AP reported. The vessel and its more than 100 passengers, including children, was brought to a port in Calabria, southern Italy, where it arrived on Sunday.

Libya's coast guard rejects criticism

Meanwhile, Libya's coast guard on Saturday (April 24) rejected accusations by private sea rescuers that it is not doing enough to prevent the deaths of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. A spokesman told Italy's ANSA news agency that the force had been deployed despite adverse weather conditions.

Migrants rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast arrive at a naval base in Tripoli, Libya | Photo: EPA
Migrants rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast arrive at a naval base in Tripoli, Libya | Photo: EPA


According to Ocean Viking's log, a vessel of Libya's coast guard, Ubari, was supposedly headed to the dinghy's aid. When the Ocean Viking arrived and found the bodies, however, it noted in its log that "there is no sign of patrol vessel Ubari in the vicinity nor contact established with the Ocean Viking.''

According to Libya's coast guard, bad weather, combined with the need to rescue other migrants off the Libyan coast, prevented involvement in the efforts to help the dinghy. Citing Italian news reports, AP reported that Ubari, which Libya's coast guard received from Italy in 2018, had rescued 104 migrants and recovered two bodies from a traffickers' boat off the country's coast on Thursday.

Exploitation and abuse in Libya

Over the past years, the European Union has partnered with Libya to prevent migrants from making the journey by sea to Europe. Despite a record of abuses, Italy has been training and equipping Libya's controversial coast guard, a practice the EU member state has come under fire from aid groups for.

According to the aforementioned joint statement by IOM and UNHCR, those intercepted and returned to Libya face "arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, exploitation and violence, conditions that push them to take risky journeys especially sea crossings."

Both Italy and Malta have contended that charity vessels in effect help ensure that the migrants, who pay the Libyan-based smugglers, safely reach European shores. The findings of a study from November 2019, however, challenge this widespread claim: It found no valid statistical link between the likelihood that migrants will be rescued at sea and the number of attempted Mediterranean crossings.

Both nations also insist -- mainly in vain -- that they bear an unfair burden as the first point of entry into Europe for irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean from northern Africa.

With AP, dpa, KNA

 

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