They were spotted Saturday morning, around 11 a.m. local time, by a patrol plane flying as part of operation Sophia: 100 migrants clinging to a half-submerged rubber boat that was slowly sinking, 40 miles off the coast of Gasr Garabulli, east of Tripoli.
Eighty-six people were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti, and eight bodies were recovered, but the number of those still missing makes the final tally much worse. Two NGOs still patrolling the central Mediterranean also gave out information about the shipwreck—the German Sea Watch and the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms.
“At least 25 people died in the incident, exact numbers still unclear. Italian navy on the scene,” tweeted the German activists in the early afternoon. From the Spanish ship came other details: “Shipwreck off the coast of Libya, east of Tripoli. After hours in the water, 86 people were saved by the Italian Coast Guard, and dozens of people are missing who will be among those dead without a burial. They must be added to the count as the first drowned in the Mediterranean in 2018.” Early estimates gave the number of those crammed onto the boat at around 150 people, but the information was still patchy this weekend.
Since Jan. 1, 417 migrants were recovered at sea and taken to Italy, and the number had already reached 333 by Jan. 4. During the same period last year, the number of the rescued was 729. At least 3,116 migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2017. The number who managed to land in Italy was 119,369, 34.24 percent fewer than in 2016. The decline began in July, after the agreements signed with Tripoli. Since then, the Libyan Coast Guard began to patrol the waters, taking back those who were attempting to cross and locking them up in detention centers run by the government or by the militias.
Four NGOs have decided to abandon search and rescue operations (Doctors Without Borders has not signed the protocol required by the Italian Interior Ministry for nongovernmental organizations, MOAS has chosen to focus on other areas of crisis, and the others had no ships that were able to deal with the winter storms), and there are only three still at sea: the two already mentioned, and the French Sos Méditerranée. The operations of the Libyans have gradually increased, so much so that in December the number of arrivals to Italy declined by 73 percent compared to the same month in 2016.
In December, Amnesty International leveled heavy accusations against the E.U. policies on this matter in Brussels: “European governments”—and Italy in particular—“are knowingly complicit in the torture and abuse of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants detained by Libyan authorities.” Amnesty also stated that at least 500,000 people were stranded in Libya, where they were suffering appalling violence, only to end up being auctioned in modern slave markets.
The architect of this development, which started last summer, was Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti, who again defended the agreements with Tripoli in Saturday’s edition of Die Welt: “2017 has taught us that we can manage migratory flows, without barbed wire or walls. We have reduced the number of new arrivals by 68 percent in the past six months. Our ‘hot spots’ are now empty. The disintegration of the European Union has been avoided, and we have taken the wind out of the sails of the populists.” The German newspaper even awarded him with the title of “the most popular politician in the country.”
According to Minniti, there are no problematic aspects of any kind in the management of the migrant issue: “Italy is continuing to work with the NGOs operating in the Mediterranean. The reception of refugees is continuing. The Libyan Coast Guard has carried out 22,000 rescue operations.”
On the issue of torture, he has this to say: “For 10 years, the traffic of human beings has been concentrated in Libya, a country that has not signed the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. No one had ever asked the question of how the U.N. organizations, as well as other human rights organizations, would be able to operate in Libya. This was made possible thanks to our agreement. On Dec. 22, thanks to the Italian Conference of Bishops, we organized the first humanitarian corridor, bringing 162 women and children to Italy.”
What Minniti fails to mention is the fact that, in return for its role as policeman of the Mediterranean, Libya intends to ask the U.N. for the easing of sanctions in order to increase its stock of weapons.