According to The Guardian, dozens of bodies have been recovered from the Mediterranean, a day after the shipwreck that caused the deaths of up to 150 migrants.
Eyewitnesses described harrowing scenes in the sea, in what a senior UN official called the “the worst Mediterranean tragedy” so far this year. Fishermen told AFP they saw bodies as they waded through the wreckage searching for survivors: “There were bodies floating on the surface of the water where the boat went down.”
One survivor, Abdallah Osman, said the boat making the perilous journey from Libya started to fill with water about 90 minutes after setting out to sea on Wednesday night. Then its engine broke down.
“Shortly after dawn, fishermen came out with their small boats and started taking us to shore, five at a time ... That went on until nine in the morning,” he told AFP.
At about 10.30 am Anne-Cecilia Kjaer, a nurse activity manager at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), arrived at a military base in Khoms in Libya, where the survivors were recovering.
“It was a very, very hot day. People were sitting against a wall to find some shade. They were barely dressed – some were wearing just a towel or underwear. They were just sitting in the shade, in shock.
“One man from Sudan, who was literally pulled out of the water, told our team that he had seen his wife and kids drown. He seemed aghast, just sitting there in shock.” Kjaer said those on the boat originated from Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and Bangladesh.
The survivors told MSF medical workers they had left the Libyan coast on Wednesday evening at sunset, “possibly on board three boats lashed to each other”.
As they continued towards the shore, the boat started to fill with water. “Most of the children couldn’t swim, and even those who could swim sank because of fatigue,” Kjaer said.
Thursday’s shipwreck is thought to be the deadliest Mediterranean crossing this year with an estimated 150 dead. The dangerous crossings from north Africa to European shores peaked after the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East.
The heads of the two key UN agencies championing refugees and migrants have called for an end to their “arbitrary detention” across Libya, following an agreement on Tuesday by European Union countries to offer those fleeing across the Mediterranean a safe berth through a new distribution mechanism.
“The violence in Tripoli in recent weeks has made the situation more desperate than ever, and the need for action critical”, stressed António Vitorino, Director General of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Disagreements on how to distribute people rescued at sea, led the European Union (EU) to end official Mediterranean Sea patrols earlier this year, as Italy rejected having to take the bulk of those rescued. While the specifics have not yet been outlined, news agencies reported that 14 EU countries have reached a tentative agreement to allocate migrants and refugees more evenly across the bloc.
The UN officials advocated for a more orderly release process for those in detention, within urban areas or open centres, “that allow reasonable freedom of movement, shelter, assistance and protection from harm, plus independent monitoring and regular unhindered access for humanitarian agencies”. Considering the risks of abuse, maltreatment or death, “no one should be returned to detention centres in Libya after being intercepted or rescued at sea”, they stressed.
They said the renewed commitment from EU States for those making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing was encouraging: “The status quo, where search and rescue operations are often left to NGO [non-governmental organisations] or commercial vessels, cannot continue”, underscored the high-ranking officials, calling for a renewed commitment to an EU State search and rescue operation, “similar to programmes we have seen in recent years”.
The “crucial role” of NGOs “must be acknowledged”, they continued and not criminalised or stigmatised for saving lives at sea.