On the evening of 7 February, after paying smugglers 650 euro a head, around 400 migrants were brought to Garabouli, 40 kilometres west of Tripoli, where armed men forced them to board four inflatable rubber dinghies. The next day, this nightmare got even worse.
In the early afternoon of 8 February, the Italian coast guard received an SOS from a location 120 nautical miles south of the Italian island Lampedusa and 74 nautical miles north of Libya. The phone call was almost incomprehensible but the poignant words “danger, danger” could be heard in English. It was enough for the coast guard to spring into action.
At that moment, the main ship of the European Triton border management operation was moored in Malta, hundreds of miles away, for maintenance. So much for the European Union’s much-touted response to the closure of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission late last year!
The weather forecast in that area was very bad for the coming week. Many of the migrants were wearing light clothes, and braved temperatures close to freezing as well as hail and waves of up to eight metres. The four dinghies were powered by small outboard motors, and the people smugglers had not provided enough petrol for the trip.
Admirably and with great courage, the coast guard dispatched a search and rescue operation. It was long and arduous, carried out in 18-metre boats in stormy seas. By 9pm on Sunday 8 February, they managed to rescue 105 people from one of the dinghies, but even after being saved, 29 died of hypothermia and other causes. Two merchant ships in the area saved nine survivors from two of the other dinghies.
An Amnesty International delegation met some of the survivors in Lampedusa.
Ibrahim, a 24-year-old man from Mali who was one of only two survivors in his dinghy, said:
“[At around 7pm on] Sunday the boat started to lose air and to fill with water. People began to fall into the sea. At each wave, two or three were taken away. The front part of the boat rose, so people on the back fell in the sea. At that point, only about 30 people remained on the boat. One side of the boat … stayed afloat …and [we clung to a rope as we had] water up to our belly. [Eventually] only four of us remained. We kept holding on, together, all night. It was raining. At sunrise, two slipped away. During the morning we saw a helicopter. There was a red shirt in the water; I shook it so they would see me. They threw a small inflatable boat, but I didn’t have the energy to reach it. So we stayed, holding on. Half an hour later, a cargo boat arrived. It threw a rope to get us onboard. It was about 3 in the afternoon [on 9 February].”
The boat started to lose air and to fill with water. People began to fall into the sea. At each wave, two or three were taken away.Ibrahim, a 24-year-old man from Mali who was one of only two survivors in his dinghy
Lamin, also from Mali, was on board the other dinghy approached by a merchant vessel:
“We were 107 [on board]. In the high seas, the waves were taking the boat up and down. Everyone was afraid. I saw three people falling in the water. No one could help. They tried to catch the boat but couldn’t. Then many others died, maybe for lack of food or water. I can’t count how many died. When a big, commercial boat came to rescue us, only seven of us were [left]. The rescuers threw a rope and got us onboard. During the rescue, [our] boat folded in two and went down, taking down all the bodies.”
The survivors have confirmed that there were four dinghies; the fourth is still missing. In all, more than 300 migrants perished.
It is impossible to know how many lives would have been saved with more resources, but the death toll would likely be lower. The coast guard did the best they could under the circumstances.
Departures of refugees and migrants surged over the weekend, and will continue to do so as Libya descends deeper into violence. The Italian coast guard confirmed that Italian authorities and merchant vessels rescued a total of more than 2,800 people in at least 18 boats between Friday 13 and Sunday 15 February. On Sunday 15 February alone, 2,225 people were rescued from a dozen boats.
Faced with the enormity of the crisis, the head of the Italian coast guard’s rescue operation centre was frank with Amnesty International about the limited resources at their disposal:
“When departures pick up after the winter, we won’t be able to take them all, if we remain the only one to go out there.”
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it expects the trend of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to continue in 2015. Some 218,000 crossed in 2014, and the numbers for January 2015 already show a 60% increase in incoming migrants registered in Italy compared to January 2014. There were close to 3,500 recorded deaths last year, making it the deadliest sea crossing in the world.
Amnesty International is urging EU countries to provide collective and concerted search and rescue operations along routes taken by migrants, to at least the same level as Mare Nostrum. In the meantime, the organization is urging Italy to provide additional emergency resources until this happens.
Note: A version of this blog was originally published in Corriere della Sera.