The Aquarius, chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has disembarked the 27 people rescued on Sunday in the port of Pozzallo (Italy). They had been rescued by an Italian cargo ship off the coast of Libya, only a day after the first tragic shipwreck of the year 2018, in which at least 8 people died and scores are still missing.
First rescued people of the year aboard Aquarius
The 27 survivors welcomed aboard, were in shock and some displayed symptoms of hypothermia. They were taken under the care of the MSF medical team, with the Aquarius continuing – under coordination of the MRCC Rome – its search of boats in distress in international waters west of Tripoli. Monday night the Aquarius headed for Sicily to disembark the rescued in a place of safety.
“Even during the winter and despite unstable weather conditions, hundreds of people continue to risk their lives at sea, to flee Libya. Moreover, in recent days, the media has reported armed clashes in several areas along the Libyan coastal zone. The situation grows more chaotic day by day, which makes departures more difficult to anticipate and therefore complicates our search and rescue operations. Rescue ships are forced to patrol a much wider geographical area,” said Klaus Merkle, SOS MEDITERRANEE SAR-Coordinator aboard the Aquarius.
Deteriorating conditions for migrants detained in Libya
“I have been in Libya for two years now. I was in prison in Sabratha. One day the guards beat me with a machete, with an AK47, on my head – I hadn’t done anything. You have to pay to get out of prison. When I heard that Africans were in camps, tied up with chains, beaten, sold, I told myself that I absolutely had to leave Libya, I could not stay there. If I had known all that, I would never have gone to Libya. It was very difficult to get out. There are many people who are stuck there, who want to get out, but do not know how,” a Senegalese told SOS MEDITERRANEE volunteers.
Two survivors said this was their fifth attempt at crossing, another one was on his second attempt after previously having been intercepted by “Libyan coastguards” and sent back to prison. The health situation in detention camps in Libya seems ever more critical, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in the number of cases of scabies detected among those on board the Aquarius.
“In our last operations, we saw newborns and children whose bodies were covered in scabies. This is a clear sign of the declining detention conditions of children and adults in Libyan prisons,” said the Search-and-Rescue coordinator.
“Less rescue boats: more deaths to mourn”
Saturday, the Aquarius was patrolling the rescue zone west of Tripoli, 80 nautical miles from the position of the first tragic shipwreck of the year, during which the Italian coastguard rescued 86 people and recovered 8 lifeless bodies. As reported by the media, the survivors estimated that more than fifty people are still missing.
With at least 2,833 people gone missing at sea in 2017 (according to official IOM estimates) and already 76 since the beginning of 2018, the central Mediterranean, by far, remains the deadliest migratory route in the world.
“The first shipwreck of the year 2018 once again confirms: fewer rescue boats mean more deaths to mourn. It is impossible to cover the entire rescue area with only the two NGO boats that currently remain in the area. European States can certainly prevent these thousands of predictable deaths, but it is a question of political will. More resources have to be deployed, corresponding to the scale of this tragedy. To claim that the Libyan coastguard can assume this task is an excuse. We keep emphasizing: a true European rescue operation must be set up, in accordance with maritime conventions and international law. Faced with the lack of adequate policy responses, the Aquarius will continue its mission throughout the winter and in 2018, without break, for its third consecutive year” said Sophie Beau, Vice President of the international network of SOS MEDITERRANEE.
2017: more people rescued by the Aquarius, twice as many minors
While the overall arrival of migrants in Italy across the Central Mediterranean decreased in 2017, the number of people rescued by Aquarius increased: In 2017 alone, the Aquarius rescued a total of 15,078 people in international waters between Libya and Italy. This is an increase of 33.9% (3,817 more people) than in 2016, where 11,261 survivors were welcomed aboard. Of these 15,078 people, 2,048 were women (13.6%), of whom at least 8% were pregnant when they arrived on board, a number than can possibly be linked to the systematic rape of women in detention in Libya. Another number that needs to be acknowledged is the 45% increase in the number of minors rescued (3,406 individuals), or more than 33% of all those rescued, of whom 82.8% were unaccompanied minors and no less than 219 were under 5 years old. This is an overall increase of 43%, as compared to 2016.
Photos: Federica Mameli / SOS MEDITERRANEE
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*** About SOS MEDITERRANEE, European Rescue Association in the Mediterranean Sea: SOS MEDITERRANEE is an association founded in 2015 by a group of European citizens, determined to take action against the tragedy of repeated shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. The association is founded on humanitarian values and has one goal: saving lives at sea. Thanks to an exceptional mobilization of European civil society, SOS MEDITERRANEE chartered the Aquarius, and began its rescue operations off the coast of Libya, in late February 2016. In 2016, the crews aboard the Aquarius rescued 11,261 people, another 15,078 people in 2017 and 27 this first week of January 2018. Amounting to a total of 26,366 people rescued. Every day at sea costs 11,000 euros, needed to finance the charter of the ship, its crew, the fuel, and all the equipment needed to take care of the refugees. The association calls on all civil society actors: individuals, NGOs, foundations, patrons, companies and public authorities, to support its vital work. In 2016, 98% of the organization’s budget was covered by private donations.