Retired brigadier Martin Xuereb, the former head of Malta’s armed forces, is director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a Malta-based charity that uses a 40-metre vessel, the Phoenix, to assist boats in distress at sea. The rescue group saved more than 3,000 people adrift at sea in the Mediterranean last summer. The latest migrant deaths are a setback for Triton, the European Union mission that took over from Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation in November. Mr. Xuereb, in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, said a new Mare Nostrum-type operation is urgently required.
Why are migrants now leaving Libya even when the weather is bad?
The push factors are huge now. We know what’s happening in Syria. People feel that they have no option but to leave, and to leave now. We also know what is happening in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a market. People are just going for it. The factors pushing people away from the countries of origin are too (strong). It is not about the pull factors, the pull of Europe.
Among the people who died at sea, some collapsed and died after they had been rescued. What went wrong?
The likelihood is that these people had been out at sea for a number of hours. They would have been very weak in view of the cold weather. It is very likely that they would have left North Africa when sea conditions were favourable. But in the central Mediterranean the sea can be very unforgiving. These are not mariners. They don’t have mariners driving the boat. They’re just put on a boat and [told] where to head. The minute they can’t see light any more they start going around in circles. It is very possible that these people had been out at sea for a considerable period of time.
It rains. People get wet. Then there’s the wind chill [factor]. The sea was rough, and hypothermia even in able-bodied men sets in very quickly. It is very possible that they were already suffering from hypothermia when they were rescued.
Italy’s Mare Nostrum mission is over. What will the impact be on search and rescue operations?
We are today [back to the situation that prevailed] in 2013 when we had two huge tragedies on Oct. 3 and Oct. 10 [when hundreds of migrants, mainly from Eritrea, died when their boat sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa) which eventually launched Mare Nostrum. We have gone around in full circle. I have no doubt that the Italian authorities do their very best to deal with search and rescue cases out at sea. But when you’re talking about the need to save lives you just need more assets out there. There needs to be another Mare Nostrum, a Mare Nostrum II. Whether this is set up by Italy or by a group of nations that come together to save live is immaterial. What is important is that there is a need for assets out there to save lives at sea.