Scores of migrants are feared drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this weekend after two shipwrecks involving vessels that left from Libya and Morocco.
At least 170 people are reported to have drowned, including 53 who left Morocco and died after a collision in the Alboran Sea, and 117 whose rubber dinghy sank near Libya.
“We cannot turn a blind eye to the high numbers of people dying on Europe’s doorstep,” said UN refugee high commissioner Filippo Grandi in a statement urging EU states to support additional search and rescue operations by aid organisations.
Three survivors – two Sudanese and one Gambian – were rescued by an Italian Navy helicopter after the dinghy they said was carrying 120 people sunk 50 miles off the Libyan coast.
While being treated for hypothermia on the Italian island Lampedusa, the traumatised survivors told medics and aid workers how they watched as 117 people dropped one-by-one into the sea, including two women who held toddlers above their heads until they ran out of strength and disappeared beneath the waves, along with their children.
“I am alive but the others are all dead,” the 22-year-old Gambian told loved ones in an emotional phone call home, reported the Italian daily La Stampa.
The survivors said they left the coast from near Gasr Garabulli, east of Tripoli, under the cover of darkness and without lifejackets early Friday, but began taking on water 10 hours later.
An Italian air force maritime patrol aircraft spotted the distressed dinghy Friday mid-day with about 20 people aboard and dropped two inflatable rafts, while a helicopter was called to respond from an Italian Navy destroyer 200 kilometers away.
The German NGO ship Sea Watch3 was about 10 hours away and asked to help, but was assured by Rome that Libyan authorities were responding. According to Italian reports and radio traffic overheard by Sea Watch, the Libyan Coast Guard ship reported engine trouble and turned back, directing a nearby merchant ship to the area, which found nothing.
When the Italian helicopter reached the site, only three survivors could be rescued, one from the water and two from one of the rafts, the Italian Navy said.
Two other migrant boats were returned to Libya by its coast guard on Saturday, and 47 migrants were rescued from another dinghy in distress by Sea Watch, which is now waiting to be assigned a safe port.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister who has closed Italian ports to humanitarian boats since a populist coalition came to power in mid-2018, posted a Facebook video calling the latest shipwreck “proof that by reopening the ports, more people will die.”
He also urged Sea Watch to take the “long way around” via Rotterdam to disembark its 47 migrants in Hamburg.
Italian president Sergio Mattarella espressed “profound pain” over the incident, which has raised questions about the effectiveness of €338 million the EU has given Libya since 2014 to combat human trafficking and stem migration.
“After emptying the Mediterranean of rescue boats, financing the Libyan coast guard and thereby condemning thousands to be locked up in detention centres and returned to trafficking, after closing ports and ending every form of humanity, Europe is still running away from the moral responsibility of these deaths,” said Claudia Lodesani, president of Italian chapter of Doctors without Borders.
The uptick in departures from Libya comes amidst a new round of fighting that erupted between rival militias near Tripoli earlier this week, killing 13 and wounding more than 50.
Migrant arrivals to Europe in the first 16 days of 2019 totalled 4,449, almost all by sea, compared with 2,964 in the same period of 2018, IOM data showed.
It said last year, some 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean while 116,959 people reached Europe by sea.