More than 400 migrants and refugees, exhausted and struggling in flimsy rubber and wooden boats, have been rescued from the Central Mediterranean Sea over 28 hours this week by a German humanitarian mission. Many of those setting off from Libya to try to make it to Europe are children and teens.
The migrants are in really bad shape when they are picked up, says Philipp Hahn, head of mission on board the rescue ship used by Sea-Watch, the German non-governmental organization. Many have chemical burns from the highly corrosive mixture of petrol and saltwater that accumulates in the unseaworthy vessels into which they are crammed.
Most have few belongings, Mr. Hahn said, usually having been robbed at some point on their journey. “People often come out of situations where they experience torture and wrong treatment,” he told The Globe and Mail.
The rescued migrants come from a number of regions and countries, Mr. Hahn said, including West and Central Africa, Pakistan and Syria. They have told him about their perilous journeys to Libya, where some say they are forced into harsh labour and slavery and subjected to torture. Eventually, Mr. Hahn said, they make their way onto boats but are at risk of being pulled back to Libya.
“I just had a conversation with a young guy who said this is his seventh time that he tried to cross and is on board our ship, and incredibly happy finally to have made it to freedom.”
The rescue boat, the Sea-Watch 3, departed for the Central Mediterranean on Oct. 10 and has carried out seven missions so far – with the help of a reconnaissance aircraft, the Seabird.
More than 1,400 people have already drowned in the Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. However, that number does not account for deaths that have not been reported. And so far this year, more than 25,000 people in boats have been intercepted by the European Union-supported Libyan Coast Guard and returned to that country, the agency said.
This week, the Seabird aircraft witnessed two illegal “pullbacks” by the Libyan Coast Guard, Sea-Watch said in a statement. The press release also referred to a recent landmark verdict in Italy, in which a captain of a merchant ship was sentenced to one year in prison for extraditing refugees. He had handed over migrants to the Libyans.
Felix Weiss, a spokesperson for Sea-Watch Airborne, said that from the air they have often observed human-rights violations and illegal pullbacks.
On board the ship, the crew has been providing medical attention to the people they rescued, Sea-Watch said in a statement. Three women with severe chemical burns were evacuated by the Italian Coast Guard, Sea-Watch tweeted. However, the group said they “demand that all of our guests onboard the #SeaWatch3 are allowed to disembark as soon as possible!”
Mr. Hahn said his organization does not have much influence over where the people they rescue will go next. He said international and maritime laws dictate people found in distress have to be brought to a safe port, which means a European port, because of their location.
On Sunday morning, the crew rescued 66 people from an overcrowded wooden boat after being informed a ship was in distress by the organization Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants and refugees in distress at sea. Shortly after, the Seabird aircraft sighted another boat in distress. There were 54 people on that rubber boat, including two pregnant women.
Early Monday, the crew spotted another wooden boat in distress and rescued 73 people. Two more rubber boats were spotted after, carrying 70 and 59 people, respectively. That afternoon, the Seabird sighted another boat in distress. The rubber boat began losing air, causing people to fall into the water – but they were all rescued. The same thing happened with a seventh boat.
Each mission highlights the “catastrophic rescue gap that European states have created at the world’s deadliest border,” Mr. Hahn said in the Sea-Watch press release.
He told The Globe he hopes people open their hearts and understand there are many in the world who have a tougher life, and that solidarity is needed “to make sure this place is a livable place, this world, for everybody.”
In photos: Aboard the Sea-Watch 3
Photographer Valeria Mongelli captured the scene on Monday and Tuesday as the Sea-Watch 3’s crew brought migrants to safety. Here is some of what she saw.
In charts: Where the boats are going
The Central Mediterranean route, particularly Libya to Italy, is where much of the migrant traffic goes, and where the most people have died or gone missing.