Thursday 19 September 2019

100 feared dead off Libya as migrants become desperate

Rescue: Migrants jump from a rescue ship close to the island of Lampedusa. Photo: Reuters
Rescue: Migrants jump from a rescue ship close to the island of Lampedusa. Photo: Reuters

Belén Carreño

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said yesterday it fears that a boat packed with migrants sunk off the Libyan coast with more than a hundred people dead.

"We have every reason to fear the worst - that over 100 lives were lost and nobody will ever know for sure," MSF said in a statement on Twitter.

The tragedy comes as a stand-off that left 80 migrants stranded on a charity ship off the southern Italian coast for the past two weeks came to an end.

Libya is a hub for migrants and refugees, many of whom try to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

The Libyan coast guard was not immediately available for comment on MSF's reports of the drownings.

A boat carrying about 250 people, mainly from Eritrea and other sub-Saharan African and Arab countries, capsized last month off the coast near Komas, east of the capital Tripoli.

Libyan coast guards and local fishermen rescued 134 people while about 115 were missing, bringing the death toll of Mediterranean migrants to over 600 this year.

That put 2019 on course to be the sixth year in a row with more than 1,000 deaths, UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said at the time.

Meanwhile, nearly 100 migrants who had been stranded on the 'Open Arms' rescue ship off the coast of Lampedusa disembarked on the Italian island last night, ending a prolonged stand-off between the Spanish charity operating the boat and the government in Rome.

The migrants, mainly from Africa, were removed from the boat after an Italian prosecutor ordered the seizure of the ship and the evacuation of the people on board.

The ship docked at Lampedusa's harbour just after 10.30pm.

The 'Open Arms' ship, run by a Spanish charity of the same name, had rescued the migrants heading for Europe off the Libyan coast. But after Italy refused to let it dock the ship had been stranded at sea for nearly three weeks, with the charity saying that the migrants were distressed and urgently needed to find shelter.

Open Arms' director and founder, Oscar Camps, confirmed earlier on Twitter that the ship would be seized temporarily, adding it was "a cost that Open Arms assumes to ensure that people on board can be served."

Spain sent a naval vessel yesterday afternoon to rescue the migrants and take them to Mallorca after some of them jumped overboard.

But the Spanish navy is only due to reach Lampedusa in three days and Open Arms repeatedly said that the situation on board was desperate and some migrants were suicidal.

The passengers were sleeping jammed together on deck and sharing two toilets.

After the charity said nine had tried to swim ashore, TV footage showed another five people jump, although it was not immediately clear if some were lifeguards.

Dozens of migrants have been taken ashore since the ship entered Italian waters because they were said to be minors or ill.

Italy has taken a tough line on migrant entry, saying it has borne too much responsibility for handling African migration to Europe. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini says the charity-run ships have become "taxis" for people smugglers.

He suggested that the Open Arms charity was exaggerating the problems on board.

"Spanish NGO, Spanish ship, Spanish port: The coherence and strength of Italy has paid off. We are no longer the refugee camp of Europe," he said in a statement.

The standoff has fuelled Salvini's campaign against migrant boats from Africa, and comes as he is trying to force Italy into snap elections.

Irish Independent

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