Plucked from the cruel sea
Irish naval ship rescues more than 600 desperate migrants from the waters of the Mediterranean
The Irish naval ship LE Eithne has rescued more than 600 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea in the past two days, only a fortnight after she set sail from Ireland.
Some 49 cold and hungry children were among the 410 mostly West African migrants that the Irish Naval Service flagship rescued from a barge crammed with hundreds of passengers about 45 kilometres north of the Libyan city of Tripoli shortly after midnight on Thursday.
Conditions on board were horrendous, according to navy spokesman Capt Dave Barry.
“There was no sanitation, no safety equipment, no lifejackets, no compasses, nothing,” he said.
As more of the migrants were pulled off what was an old fishing barge, more appeared, he said.
“They were dehydrated, cold and hungry,” he said
The discovery was made after the Italian Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre spotted the overladen barge off the Libyan coast.
LE Eithne Commander Pearse O’Donnell dispatched rigid inflatable boats, or RIBS, to the barge and crews brought the occupants back to the ship, where they were given food, water and medical attention.
The rescue took until 4am. But no sooner had crews had time to recover from that operation when they were called into action again around 9:45am on Friday, when they encountered a rubber dingy laden with approximately 100 migrants.
They, too, were brought back to the ship in RIBs, where they received medical attention and provisions after the helicopter flight deck was adapted to allow more migrants to squeeze in.
The dramatic rescue followed another operation on Thursday in which a five-month-old baby was among 201 migrants that navy crews plucked from the sea.
The migrants arrived at the Italian port of Palermo around 1pm yesterday and were turned over to Italian authorities.
They were among more than 4000 migrants who have been rescued from the Mediterraean in the past two days by Italian, Irish, German and British navies.
But Capt Barry said the rescue by the Irish navy crew is literally just a drop in the ocean of what’s to come.
“This is just the start of it,” he told the Sunday Independent last night.
“They are doing a very good, professional job but we can expect they’ll be doing this on a regular basis due to the scale of what’s going on there. There are literally hundreds of thousands of migrants involved.”
Yesterday, Lieutenant Shane Mulcahy, who was involved in the rescue, told RTE’s Marian Finucane that the migrants were very distressed and that the boats carrying them were “sinking of their own accord”.
“When we approached the boats they were all in varying states of distress, I would say that most or all of these people don’t come from a sea-faring background and had no idea of the dangers of being at sea, even though they had been on the water for a relatively short period of time — about 12 to 20 hours.
“They were dehydrated and there were a lot of problems, especially with the kids on board as it was very hard for their parents to protect them from the weather conditions.
“The boats were in varying stages of deflating so it would have only been a mater of time before it would have sank.”
Meanwhile, writes Nick Squires, more than 4,200 migrants have been rescued from the Mediterranean in the space of only 24 hours, the Italian Coast Guard said yesterday.
HMS Bulwark, a British Royal Navy assault ship, joined one of the biggest search and rescue missions yet mounted.
Warships and merchant ships carried out 22 separate operations between Friday and yesterday, coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard from its national rescue centre in Rome.
In total 4,243 people were saved from nine boats and 13 large rubber dinghies. Seventeen dead bodies were found on board one dinghy. The people had died from exhaustion, thirst, exposure, or a mixture of all three.
All the rescues were carried out in the southern Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya, as the refugees tried to reach Italian shores.
This represented “a complex scenario which required the involvement of numerous naval units from the Coast Guard, the Italian navy, the Guardia di Finanza (a frontier police force) and the Irish and German navies, as well as several merchant ships which were diverted by the national rescue centre,” said a statement from the Coast Guard.
The Bulwark transported 740 of those rescued to the Italian port of Taranto.
Around 250 were saved by a Belgian ship, which went to the aid of a drifting boat whose engine had stopped working.
The European Union decided to launch an expanded rescue mission after the Mediterranean’s worst tragedy
for decades, when a fishing vessel packed with 800 migrants capsized. Only 28 people survived.
More than 40,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached Italy so far this year. An estimated 1,800, including women and children, lost their lives during the journey.
Many of them are fleeing civil war and persecution in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Mali and Nigeria.
The EU is planning to take military action against people smugglers operating along the coast of Libya, in a campaign that could begin in June.
Smugglers are reaping millions by overcrowding unseaworthy boats with migrants on Libya’s Mediterranean coast to set out for Italian shores. The migrants are fleeing war, persecution or poverty in Africa, the Mideast and elsewhere.
Cargo ships and Irish and German navy vessels helped Italian military craft in Friday’s rescues. Italy has demanded its European partners help more with the migrants, who have been coming in huge numbers this year. Last year, Italy rescued some 170,000 migrants at sea.
The latest arrivals, following several days without rescues, followed a pattern. When seas are rough or weather stormy, few set out. When calm seas arrive, smugglers launch as many boats as they can, cramming more migrants into the boats than can safely be carried. Manny vessels soon run into difficulties. The Italian Coast Guard coordinates rescues after receiving distress calls via satellite phones from the migrant boats, or when the craft are spotted by military patrol boats or aircraft.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned on Saturday migrant arrivals would continue without letup as long as Libya, where rival governments and violent militias hold sway, is plagued by chaos.
The high cost of rescuing and sheltering migrants while they seek asylum is campaign fodder in Sunday’s local and regional elections in Italy. Anti-immigrant Northern League leader Matteo Salvini urged voters to choose his party, saying that whoever doesn’t “is an accomplice of the invasion” of migrants.