DOZENS of refugees and migrants drowned after the boat carrying them off the coast of Libya sank last week, in what a UN official called “the worst Mediterranean tragedy” of 2019.
Eyewitnesses and survivors said that the boat, carrying migrants from Libya, started to fill with water about 90 minutes after it left shore. Over the next six hours, 150 people are estimated to have drowned.
A total of 164 people died on the route between Libya and Europe in the first four months of 2019, figures from the UN show.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, posted a message on Twitter last week: “The worst Mediterranean tragedy of this year has just occurred. Restoring rescue at sea, ending refugee and migrant detention in Libya, increasing safe pathways out of Libya must happen now, before it is too late for many more desperate people.”
The general secretary of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe, Dr Torsten Moritz, said last Friday that more accidents like this could be expected until September, while the sea is calm.
He said: “On the one hand, it is always a shock, and you react with horror and grief. On the other hand, it has become all too normal. It leaves us feeling very helpless and useless.”
He went on: “The Libyan coastguard is either not willing or not able to rescue people. . . It’s political wrangling while people are drowning.”
EU countries have attempted actively to suppress crossings, by putting pressure on Libya, building migrant detention centres in the country, and stepping back from providing search-and-rescue capabilities in the Mediterranean. Some NGOs have said that these policies have caused refugee deaths.
Dr Moritz said: “There has never been any proof that there is a pull factor if you start rescuing people. There are push factors in the countries where refugees are coming from, which includes Libya now. And the EU has contributed to some of these push factors.”
Italy introduced stronger rules against migrant rescue-ships in June, telling the owners that the ships would be impounded and fined.
Commercial ships do not have access to have a port to disembark those whom they are bound to rescue.
Earlier this month, German politicians and church leaders criticised the Italian authorities after they arrested the captain of the rescue-vessel Sea-Watch 3, and tried to prevent the boat, which was filled with 53 refugees from Libya, from docking at an Italian port (News, 5 July).
Libya is in the midst of a civil war, pushing more refugees to attempt to leave the country. The UN condemned an airstrike on the Tajoura detention centre this month, in which 40 people were killed and 80 injured (News, 5 July).
Médecins Sans Frontière’s (MSF’s) representative for Search and Rescue and Libya, Sam Turner, said last week: “Politicians would have you believe that the deaths of hundreds of people at sea, and suffering of the thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya, are the acceptable price of attempts to control migration. The cold reality is that, while they herald the end of the so-called European migration crisis, they are knowingly turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis these policies perpetuate in Libya and at sea. These deaths and suffering are preventable.”
MSF announced last week that it would be resuming its search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, on the ship Ocean Viking.