The loss of life on the central Mediterranean route continues despite tireless efforts by civilian search and rescue operators as do delays in disembarkation. New reports of severe abuse in Libya and numerous deaths in the desert.   

In a dramatic rescue operation on 27 June, the Geo Barents vessel operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF Sea) rescued 71 people in the central Mediterranean but a pregnant woman died and 30 people including eight children remain missing after this latest tragedy on the deadly route. Testimonies from survivors illustrate the desperation during the incident: “I am a good swimmer and I went to help people,” a 17-year-old boy from Togo, stated, continuing: “I heard the woman (who died) crying in the water but she wasn’t able to hold on the boat”. “We have seen so many people drowning – men, women and children – and we will never forget the day we had yesterday. We tried to save them but we couldn’t save them all,” another 17-year-old survivor from Cameroon stated. Reportedly the rubber boat carrying the people collapsed and according to MSF Sea, survivors were “exhausted, and many present seawater ingestion and hypothermia symptoms after many hours in the water” and many suffered from “medium to severe fuel burns”. Three people had to be “rescued with a stretcher as they were unable to walk” and a baby “found without any vital signs” was resuscitated on the ship and urgently evacuated to Malta. An additional four people severely injured were evacuated on 1 July. With Malta continuing its policy of ignoring distress alerts and requests for disembarkation several requests were sent to the Italian authorities on behalf of the increasingly desperate 69 survivors remaining on board the Geo Barents vessel. On 2 July, survivors were finally allowed to disembark in Taranto, Italy after five days at sea. The day after, the Ocean Viking vessel operated by SOS Mediterranee rescued 63 people in Maltese waters in its seventh rescue operation over just ten days. After another rescue on 4 July, the total number of survivors on board reached 306. On 5 July the civilian rescue operator reported that Pozollo, Italy had been assigned as the port of disembarkation for the survivors, stating: “Some of these women, children and men were rescued 12 days ago – some had spent 12 days stranded at sea”. The civilian rescue ships Sea-Watch 4 and Louis Michel had already received permission to disembark in Italy after waiting at sea. Louise Michel disembarked 59 survivors on Lampedusa on 27 June and on 28 June the Sea-Watch 4 vessel was given permission to land in Porto Empedocle, in southern Italy with 303 survivors – several people had already been evacuated for medical reasons.

Meanwhile, the ongoing cycle of distress, rescues and deaths continue in the Mediterranean. On 1 July, at least 22 people died off Libya after 9 days at sea according to some 60 survivors brought back to shore by the so-called Libyan coastguard. On 4 July the Libyan Observer reported: “A boat carrying Libyan and Syrian migrants, including women and children, capsized off Sabratha coast. Two Libyan children and a Syrian man have died while local fishermen managed to rescue the others”. On 6 July, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported 53 people in urgent distress off Cyprus – out of food for three days – with Cypriot authorities launching a rescue operation. On 7 July the hotline warned of bad weather approaching 86 people adrift off Lampedusa. On the same day Geo Barents already back at sea rescued 41 people including 15 children from two dinghies in distress in Maltese waters. On the evening of 7 July, MSF Sea reported a: “Busy day at sea” for its team, stating: “The 6th rescue of the day has just ended. There are currently 315 people on board including 73 minors. The youngest of whom is only 3 months old”. The organisation points out that: “All these rescues took place in the Maltese SAR zone. We are appalled by the fact that Armed Forces of Malta, the primary responsible for rescues in this zone, were informed but remained silent and inactive, neglecting their legal obligation to provide or coordinate assistance”. According to a report from MSF, 8,500 died or went missing on the central Mediterranean route between 2017 and 2021. IOM statistics reveal that 777 are dead or missing on the route in 2022 as of 2 July.

Libya continues to be the scene of death and abuse. On June 28,  Libyan rescue services recovered the bodies of 20 people in the desert near the border with Chad. The deceased were believed to have been migrants and were found around a black pickup truck. “The driver got lost … and we believe the group died in the desert about 14 days ago since the last call on a mobile phone there was on June 13,” Kufra ambulance chief Ibrahim Belhasan told the Reuters news agency. IOM calls for the protection of migrants along the Chad-Libya border. “The death of twenty people in the Libyan desert yesterday is yet another wake-up call for the whole international community and a reminder that we are very far from achieving the goal of ‘leaving no one behind’, the mantra of the 2030 Agenda,” said Federico Soda, the UN agency’s Chief of Mission in Libya. Soda, further underlined: “The loss of lives we are witnessing both in the Mediterranean Sea and in the deserts of southern Libya are both unacceptable and avoidable”. On June 30, Another group of ten migrants were found dead in Niger, not far from the Libyan border – authorities are investigating the cause of death but thirst is one supposition.

UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya issued a new report reaffirming previous reports highlighting grave crimes against humanity being perpetrated in war-torn Libya. The report states that the UN mission: “has reasonable grounds to believe that the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, imprisonment, rape, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts have been committed in several places of detention in Libya since 2016”. Refugees in Libya on 2 July stated: “There are currently 1.191 people detained in Ainzara, 321 of them are persons of concern to UNHCR Libya. These people are victims of gargaresh & the 3 months peaceful demonstrations. They have spent months behind bars. In the last 3 days, they have been drinking from the toilets”. According to an MSF report on the central Mediterranean route, 95,000 people were intercepted and returned to Libya from 2017 to 2021. The number this year as of 2 July is 9,973 people according to IOM.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.