The rescue ship Geo Barents, with 439 migrants on board, has requested a port of safety in Italy. Meanwhile, hundreds disembarked on the island of Lampedusa, following several other rescues by the coast guards and civil fleets.
"On the Geo Barents, 439 exhausted survivors are waiting for a place of safety to disembark," begins a tweet by the medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF Sea) which runs the Geo Barents rescue ship.
Since January 19, the Geo Barents crew has carried out six separate rescue operations, and now has 439 people on board, a quarter of whom are minors, says the charity.
Suffering due to bad weather
In a video statement the medical director on board, Alida Serrachieri, said that after examining the survivors she found evidence of several chronic illnesses, and that everyone was suffering from the current bad weather in the Mediterranean.
According to the Geo Barents twitter feed, the last rescue, of 76 people, including 12 children, took place on January 21. Just a few hours earlier, in the dead of night, the crew had rescued another 67 people "mostly from Bangladesh."
The day before, on January 20, the Geo Barents picked up 100 survivors, mostly from Pakistan. On that day, the nurse-midwife on board, Kira Smith, said the medical team was treating people for "mild hypothermia, sea-sickness, [and] general body pain."
"We are also assessing some people for fuel burns," Smith added.
Last week, two other rescue ships, the Mare Jonio, run by SOS Mediterranea Saving Humans and the Louise Michel, which was bought with the proceeds of the sale of an artwork by the British artist known as Banksy, were also active in the Central Mediterranean area.
The Mare Jonio had last week rescued 214 people who disembarked on Sunday, January 23 in the harbor at Lampedusa. The doctor on board, Michele Usuelli, said on Twitter that the migrants and crew had tested negative for COVID-19.
Usuelli tweeted that this was his second mission on board the Mare Jonio and "the most difficult." He explained that the boat was "full of women, men and children and got fuller every day, until there was no available space." He said that two men were in a very serious medical condition and had to be airlifted off the boat.
The boat then disembarked the most vulnerable on the island of Lampedusa, and finally disembarked the rest of the 70 less vulnerable migrants at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo.
According to a tweet by the organization Alarm Phone which surveys the Mediterranean and alerts the rescue ships and authorities to migrant boats in distress, the three ships rescued a total of "715 people on nine boats," in the last few days. Alarm Phone had alerted the crews to five of these boats.
The crew of the Louise Michel tweeted on January 23 that they were able to disembark "all 58 guests aboard the Louise Michel in Lampedusa last night." On Saturday, the Louise Michel posted a video of worsening weather with high waves, rain and sea spray.
They added that the situation was getting "increasingly tense." Two pregnant women and their husbands were evacuated on January 21 to Lampedusa.
Earlier that week, the Louise Michel said it spotted an empty boat in the middle of the Mediterranean. "What happened to its passengers remains unknown," stated the tweet from the crew.
Italian coast guard rescues 305
On Friday, the Italian coast guard was also busy in the area and rescued a total of 305 people who got into difficulty just off the coast of Lampedusa. According to the news agency Reuters, "two coast guard units reached the boat about 20 miles from the Italian coast."
Seventeen women and six minors were among those rescued. Reuters reported that the rescue was complex because of the overcrowding on such a small vessel and fears that it could capsize.
Italian government figures on January 24 showed that 1,751 migrants had arrived in Italy so far this year. This figure is up on the same period in January last year when just 379 people had arrived, and more than double 2020’s figures which stand at 774.
Arrivals in Italy
In 2021, a total of 67,477 irregular migrants arrived on Italian shores. In 2020 that figure was almost half, at 34,154. The number of those who have arrived to date in January this year is already greater than the arrivals for the whole of January in the two preceding years.
Similarly to last year, the majority of those arriving are Tunisian nationals, followed by Egyptians, Afghans, Bangladeshis and people from Ivory Coast. Nationals of Algeria, Guinea, Morocco, Pakistan and Syria make up the other top ten categories. But the majority of people (942 of those arrived so far this year) are yet to be identified, note the government figures.
In 2021, more than 10,000 unaccompanied minors (UAMs) arrived in Italy. So far this year, 64 UAMs have arrived.
MSF says that its requests to both Italy and Malta have so far gone ignored. In a tweet from January 23 it says that Malta has "repeatedly failed to fulfil the obligation […] to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger, including ensuring the disembarkation of the rescued persons in a place of safety."