“I know that there are problems everywhere in the world, but at least in Europe, there are human rights, not like in Libya (…). My boss still has my passport, but my passport is not my body.”
On Saturday 10 March, the Aquarius, chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Doctors without Borders, rescued 110 people from a deflated rubber boat in international waters off the Libyan coast. Later in the day, the Aquarius welcomed another 170 people: 62 who had been rescued by a merchant ship and another 108 saved by the vessel Open Arms, run by NGO Proactiva.
280 shipwrecked people, including 47 women and 32 minors (25 of whom were unaccompanied) from more than 20 countries are now safe aboard the Aquarius. The Aquarius is currently on its way to Augusta (Italy), the designated place of safety, for disembarkation on Monday.
A critical rescue
At 7:00am on Saturday 10 March, the Aquarius received a report of multiple vessels in distress, followed by an instruction of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome to proceed towards the targets. However, a dense fog encumbered the search for the boat in distress. When discovered by a small fishing boat, many people jumped from the dinghy into the water, in an attempt to escape the fishing boat.
“When we saw the fishing boat arrive, the others on the rubber boat began to panic, because they were afraid that it was a Libyan boat. They would rather have risked to continue the journey and die at sea than to be sent back to Libya,” a young Palestinian, received on board in a state of shock and hypothermia, after narrowly escaping drowning told SOS MEDITERRANEE.
“It was what we call a critical rescue –or in other words, an extremely delicate operation that could have turned into a catastrophe at any moment and resulted in a lot of casualties. When our RHIBs approached the rubber boat, it was in a very bad condition. It was in the process of deflating, the floor was about to crack and there were still more than a hundred people inside the boat,” stated Max Avis, Deputy Search and Rescue Coordinator.
The rescue team of the Aquarius was able to stabilise the situation , distribute life jackets and evacuate the passengers one by one.
The 110 passengers came from more than 13 countries, mostly West African; two Libyans and two Palestinians were also on board. Everyone was safely brought aboard the Aquarius and placed in the medical care of Doctors without Borders, to treat for hypothermia or injuries resulting from abuse in Libya.
Rescues and transfers: from east to west
Later that Saturday evening, the Aquarius transferred 62 people (mostly from North Africa) who had been rescued a few hours earlier by merchant vessel Asso Trenta close to the Bouri oilfield west of Tripoli.
Another 108 people rescued by NGO Proactiva in two different operations that day, were also transferred to the Aquarius, later that night. Proactiva had spotted a severely ill 14-year-old boy and his two older brothers, drifting in a small boat on the high seas during the night from Friday to Saturday. On Saturday afternoon, Proactiva saved more than 100 people from a rubber boat in international waters east of Tripoli, which had been located thanks to the aerial survey of humanitarian aircraft Moonbird, operated by NGO Sea-Watch.
“The rescue on Saturday morning was extremely dangerous. It is thanks to the technical equipment’s high standard and the team’s professionalism that we were able to save the people in distress. Once again underlining the need for professional, dedicated sea rescue. The operations of the last few hours also demonstrate the exceptional coordination amongst the NGOs operating in the Central Mediterranean, which has enabled us to save hundreds of lives. At the same time we have been witnessing the humanitarian emergency off the Libyan coast – the deadliest part of the sea,” said Nicola Stalla, SOS MEDITERRANEE’s rescue coordinator aboard the Aquarius.
Survivors describe Libyan hell
The 280 survivors are from more than 20 countries, and include 69 Eritreans, 12 Somalis, 6 Libyans and 3 Syrians. A number of particularly vulnerable cases have been identified, including victims of torture, potential victims of human trafficking and medical emergencies.
A young Comorian told volunteers aboard the Aquarius that he spent two years working in Libya without remuneration, for an employer that confiscated his passport upon entry in the country. He finally managed to escape in a makeshift boat: “I know that there are problems everywhere in the world, but at least in Europe, there are human rights, not like in Libya,” he said. “My boss still has my passport, but my passport is not my body.”
A 20-year-old from Chad reported to have been tortured by electric shock on a daily basis over the two months period he spent in Libya, simply for being unable to pay the ransom demanded to leave prison: “I was sold and ended up in Bani Walid. Afterwards, a friend helped me organise the journey on the boat. I spent a month in a house with 150 people. 50 of them were able to leave this time, but the others are waiting for the next departure,” he told the staff aboard the Aquarius.
Photos: Hara Kaminara / SOS MEDITERRANEE
About SOS MEDITERRANEE, European Rescue Association in the Mediterranean Sea:
SOS MEDITERRANEE is an association founded by a group of European citizens in 2015, determined to take action and respond to the tragedy of continuing shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea.
The association is founded on humanitarian values and pursues one main goal: saving lives at sea. Thanks to an exceptional mobilisation of European civil society, SOS MEDITERRANEE was able to charter the Aquarius and launch its rescue operations off the coast of Libya at the end of February 2016, enabling the rescue of more than 27.000 people thus far.
Support SOS MEDITERRANEE
Every day at sea costs 11,000 euros, needed to finance the charter of the ship, its crew, the fuel, and all the equipment necessary to take care of the refugees. The association calls on all civil society actors: individuals, NGOs, foundations, companies and public authorities, to support its vital work. In 2016, 98% of the organization’s budget was covered by private donations.