At least 15 refugees dead in Mediterranean shipwreck
The Sea Watch 3's rescue crew evacuate people from a boat in distress in the central Mediterranean. In the background is the Sea Watch 3 and a Libyan coastguard vessel Photo: Selene Magnolia / Sea-Watch

At least 15 people drowned in the central Mediterranean at the weekend while attempting to flee Libya, though the death toll could have been much higher if civilian rescuers had not intervened.

Activist network Alarm Phone received a distress call early yesterday morning from a rubber boat carrying about 125 people.

The boat was deflating, the caller told Alarm Phone, and some people had already fallen overboard.

The activists contacted the Italian, Maltese, and Libyan authorities.

“They seem to be just eight kilometers [4.9 miles] from the coast, but the so-called Libyan coastguard refuses to intervene,” Alarm Phone warned at 4 a.m. on Sunday.

“As usual, both European and Libyan authorities prefer to let people die than to let them reach Europe. We demand an immediate rescue of the 125 people before it’s too late!”

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced later in the day afternoon that its teams in Libya were assisting 95 survivors brought in by the coastguard.

Around 15 others are thought to have drowned, the survivors said.

IOM spokeswoman Safa Msehli told the Star today that such tragedies will continue if the management and approach to the situation in the Mediterranean remain the same.

“For years, we have reiterated the need to redeploy state-led search and rescue capacity, establish an alternative to disembarkation in Libya, dismantle the system of arbitrary detention and prosecute smuggling and trafficking groups to reduce loss of life,” Ms. Msehli said.

“Inaction is inexcusable and bears tragic human consequences. Beyond the numbers, there are people, families, friends and entire communities left looking for missing loved ones, extorted by traffickers or receiving horror stories from detention, whether official or unofficial.”

Meanwhile, NGO refugee rescue ship the Sea Watch 3 has saved the lives of around 450 people whom it picked up from flimsy boats in Libya and Malta’s search-and-rescue (SAR) zones since last Friday morning.

With help from Alarm Phone and the Sea Watch’s reconnaissance aircraft Moonbird, the ship’s crew brought 45 people on board on Friday, 102 people on Saturday, and 216 others in three operations on Sunday.

The ship discovered a wooden boat carrying about 90 people near the Italian island of Lampedusa in the early hours of Monday.

With no room left, the crew was forced to place the refugees in the ship’s life rafts while they waited hours for the Italian coastguard, which eventually took them to Lampedusa.

Sea Watch 3 head of mission Hugo Grenier said: “Yet again, Europe turns a blind eye while people are drowning and civil sea rescue organizations do their best to put an end to the dying at sea.

“While this year alone, more than 170 people have already lost their lives in the Mediterranean, Europe is doing everything it can to prevent us from rescuing them.

“Every person has the right to be rescued, no matter which passport they carry. The people on board have the right to a safe port, and we need it now!”

At the time the Star published this story, the Sea Watch 3 was still waiting for the Italian or Maltese authorities to provide the 363 people on board with a place to disembark.

Another boat that left Libya last Friday with roughly 150 people on board remains unaccounted for.

In its last contact with the craft, Alarm Phone said that activists heard screams and were told that some of the refugees had fallen overboard.

“We still have no contact with the 150 people who called us yesterday,” Alarm Phone said on Saturday.

“We know the so-called Libyan coastguard captured 142 people, but we have no details to confirm [whether] it is the same group and [the] authorities refuse to provide [us with] reliable information.”

Morning Star


Ben Cowles
Ben Cowles

Ben Cowles is deputy features editor and gaming columnist at the Morning Star, the socialist daily newspaper published in Great Britain.