A boat carrying dozens of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya on Tuesday. At least 40 people are missing and are presumed drowned.
Search efforts for the missing migrants have reportedly been halted after at least 65 migrants, most of them Sudanese, Tunisian or Egyptian nationals, were rescued from the waters off the Libyan coast, a spokesman for Libya's coast guard, told the Associated Press (AP).
Five people were meanwhile confirmed dead, including a woman and a child from Morocco, whose bodies have been recovered near the western Libyan town of Khoms, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Tripoli. The other dead were reported to be men from Sudan and Somalia.
While about 40 people were reported as still missing by eyewitness survivors and therefore presumed dead, Libya's coast guard gave a lower estimate for those feared drowned of 15 to 20 people.
Nine children were among 57 migrants in a wooden boat intercepted Saturday about 40 nautical miles from the town of Zuwara, west of Tripoli, navy spokesman General Ayoub Kacem told AFP. He said they were from Ethiopia and Egypt.
It came days after Libyan navy patrols on Tuesday "rescued 278 migrants on board four inflatable boats northwest and northeast of Tripoli", Kacem added.
The operations took place off the coasts of the cities of Khoms, 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Tripoli, and Sabratha, located 70 kilometres west of the capital.
According to the statement, 128 Sudanese were in the boats, in addition to migrants from Chad, Egypt, Niger, Benin and Eritrea, including 35 women and 11 children.
One body was also recovered by the coastguard.
More than 500 migrants are stuck aboard two rescue vessels off the Libyan coast, rights groups said, as European countries continue to deny them access to a safe place to disembark.
The Ocean Viking rescue ship has picked up 356 people in the Mediterranean Sea since Friday, but the vessel has yet to find safe harbour, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said in a statement on Tuesday. The group said the Norwegian-flagged vessel is carrying 103 children, only 11 of whom are accompanied by a guardian.
Another ship, the Spanish-flagged Open Arms, is carrying another 160 people and also has nowhere safe to dock, Reuters news agency reported. MSF said that Libyan authorities have failed to provide a "place to disembark rescued people that meets the requirements of international law".
The group is now calling on the authorities in Malta and Italy to assist in finding a safe place for the migrants to disembark.
"Among the survivors are those bearing the harrowing signs of physical and psychological violence experienced during their journey through Libya," said Jay Berger, an MSF project coordinator who is aboard the Ocean Viking.
The Ocean Viking charity ship rescued the 85 African migrants from the sea off Libya Friday, the latest rescue in the Mediterranean. The vessel, operated by French NGOs SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), had to call off its initial search during the night and had to wait till dawn broke to finally find the migrant boat -- to applause from the passengers.
After setting off from Libya, they had been spotted on Thursday evening from a plane flying in the European Union's migrant monitoring operation Sophia.
The 85 migrants come from Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast and Sudan. Among them are five women and 15 children. "It was the start of our third day at sea," said a young woman as she clambered aboard Ocean Viking. Crew members continued to scan the waves for a second vessel that set sail at the same time.
In Italy, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini fired off a warning to Oslo, where the rescue ship is registered. "Italy is not legally bound, nor disposed to taken in clandestine, unidentified migrants from on board the Ocean Viking," he wrote.
Norway's minister of justice and immigration, Joran Kallmyr, said on public television that the migrants should be "transported back to Africa, either to Tunisia or Libya. They should not be sent to Europe because then this action will be an extension of the refugee route instead of a rescue operation".
Revelations that a European Union-funded group known as the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) has placed at least 200 migrants in a detention centre bombed in July, killing roughly 50 people have raised concerns over EU efforts to stifle immigration.
The LCG has received roughly 91m euros from the European Commission since 2017 to stem migration, all while NGOs that engage in search and rescue operations have come under increasing pressure from EU authorities, especially in Italy and Spain.
The LCG is trained by European authorities, which also claim to monitor their efficacy. But rights groups have long warned the LCG isn’t operating with migrant safety as a priority.
On July 24 the LCG placed 38 intercepted migrants in the Tarjoua detention centre, which was bombed on July 3, killing 58 people. But Doctors Without Borders (MSF) confirmed to Spanish media that roughly 200 were placed there.
Haidi Sadik, the cultural mediator for Sea-Watch a migrant rescue NGO that helps save the lives of people in the Mediterranean, said in an interview that the LCG has previously asked Sea-Watch to place rescued migrants in danger.
Regulations under maritime and international law require that ships who see anyone in danger in the sea be rescued people and taken to a port of safety.
The LCG has even asked a Sea-Watch vessel to take rescued migrants to Tripoli, Libya, in June, calling it a “port of safety”, according to emails the NGO received and Sea-Watch published on social media.
The cultural mediator stressed that Tripoli is not a port of safety for those escaping wars, considering the internal conflict occurring there which some have called a “bloodbath”.
The EU’s system of migration control underwent a shift in policy during 2017. After a high number of migrants travelled to Europe from Africa in 2014, in 2015 the EU launched Operation Sophia in international waters, with its headquarters in Rome. This operation was dependent on the Italian Navy, coastguard and other vessels saving migrants and bringing them to Italy and other southern European countries to have their requests for asylum processed.
Many NGO boats frequently rescued migrants from small boats after smugglers brought them short distances away from African coasts. These NGO boats cooperated with the Italian coastguard, navy and other vessels as they would pass migrants to them or take migrants directly to ports. But, as the number of migrants entering the EU rose, in 2016 and 2017 the EU shifted the emphasis to paying and training African countries to keep migrants away from Europe. This change to Operation Sophia included the EU training the Libyan coastguard and navy.
In light of this policy, the number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea fell from 181,436 in 2016 to 119,369 in 2017 and 23,370 in 2018. EU officials knew that the Operation Sophia shift away from sea rescues, in 2017, involved collaborating with and paying African militias and funding horrendous detention centres. They also knew this would result in migrant deaths, according to leaked documents from EU agencies.
Since 2018, Italy has asked other EU states to share the distribution of migrants and operation of sea patrols, and to open their ports for migrants to disembark, but they have mostly refused. Consequently, in March 2019, Operation Sophia was extended for six months, but with the end of maritime rescue patrols and more training for the Libyan coastguard. While the current Italian government has been in the spotlight for fining migrant rescuers, it is the EU that has most starkly abandoned migrants.
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.
More migrants have been moved to a detention centre in Libya’s capital where an air strike killed more than 50 people last week, despite a risk it could be hit again which led to survivors being evacuated, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Friday.
Around 95 migrants were moved to the Tajoura centre in Tripoli on Thursday, some rounded up in the local community and others transferred from another detention centre in the city, the aid group said.
Earlier in the week migrants left at the centre after the July 3 bombing - some of whom were sleeping in the open for fear of another strike - were either released or evacuated, following appeals from the United Nations. An official at the Tajoura centre who asked not to be named said that following the evacuations, “we have resumed work and started receiving more (migrants)”. He declined to give more details.
The centre was hit as forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar intensified their efforts to wrest control of Tripoli from forces aligned with the internationally recognised government, which is based in the capital.