They had to stay in the sea for hours, around the remains of their sinking boat. The first relief came in the form of jackets and inflatable rafts, launched from planes taking part in the official missions patrolling the Mediterranean, but they had to wait many hours for the Tripoli Coast Guard to arrive with patrol boats. The outcome was more than 100 missing and presumed dead, including 20 children, with two bodies recovered.
The shipwreck happened on Sept. 1. The 55 survivors recounted their journey to the staff of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which assisted them in Libya. They left at dawn on Sept. 1 on two rubber boats, carrying over 160 people each, from Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, but also from Libya, Algeria and Egypt.
One of the two boats stopped almost immediately due to engine failure—but the rubber hull held up, so the occupants were all recovered alive by the Libyan navy the next day. The other boat continued the crossing, but began to deflate at around 1 p.m.
“The satellite phone showed us that we were not far from Malta,” the survivors told MSF. “We called the Italian Coast Guard, giving our coordinates and asking for assistance. They said they would send someone. People were beginning to fall into the water because the boat was sinking.” Help came, but not by sea: “They threw down life rafts from a plane,” the survivors recounted, “but we were all already in the water, the boat had capsized. Few of us had life jackets, and those who were able to cling to the wreckage were the ones who survived. A few hours later, more rescuers came, but also on a plane, dropping more life rafts.”
Only 55 survived. Among the dead were two 17-month-old twins, who drowned together with their parents. “They could have been saved if the rescuers had come sooner,” say the survivors, who were eventually collected by the Libyan Coast Guard, together with those who were on the other boat. In total, 276 survivors were brought back on Sept. 2 to Khoms, 120 kilometers east of Tripoli.
Yet another shipwreck with over 100 drowned means that the Italian government is being put in a more and more difficult position, also facing the accusations by Sicilian prosecutors in the Diciotti case. To deflect blame for this latest disaster, an explanation came yesterday afternoon from Rome claiming to settle the matter: the rescue operation took place in the Libyan SAR (search and rescue) area, over which Tripoli has assumed responsibility. The operations center of the Italian Coast Guard received the report of the shipwreck and turned it over to the SAR authorities with jurisdiction, said the explanatory note.
The survivors of the shipwreck were suffering from burns caused by the mixture of fuel and salt water, lung infections and respiratory problems. “We managed to treat 18 urgent cases, including nine people with chemical burns covering up to 75 percent of the body,” said Jai Defransciscis, a MSF nurse in Misrata, on Tuesday. “A patient whose life was in danger was transferred to the hospital.”
The group was taken to a detention center under the control of the authorities in Tripoli. Between January and August this year, the Libyan Coast Guard, with the support of the EU, has collected 13,185 migrants and refugees and taken them back to Libya. The centers in and around Khoms also hold children, infants, pregnant women and people with serious health conditions. “How can they heal,” Defransciscis went on, “if they are locked up in cells with poor sanitation, if they sleep on blankets on the floor, which cause incredible pain for those with severe burns? Some of them can’t even sit or walk. There are patients with severe chest infections caused by being in the water for a long time.”
Here, as MSF explains, migrants and refugees are imprisoned indefinitely without any basic protections or the possibility of legal recourse. Among the detainees, the Doctors Without Borders team met migrants who have had access to the protection offered by the UN agency UNHCR, but the process begun in 2017, which provides for the evacuation and repatriation to their home country (if they agree), has been blocked for months. As a result, they remain in arbitrary detention, at the mercy of human traffickers.
The fighting in Tripoli which began on August 26 made the situation even more dangerous. ”We must accelerate the process with the routes to get them out of the country,” the MSF said. “Above all, we must stop intercepting them at sea to take them back to Libya as a means to block arrivals in Europe.”
Since Jan. 1, 2018, over 1,600 victims have died while crossing the central Mediterranean (compared to 2,564 during the same period of 2017), despite the 80 percent drop in successful landings, from 99,000 in 2017 to 20,000 today.