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48 people sent back to Libya a day after a tragic refugee shipwreck

FORTY-EIGHT people attempting to flee Libya were intercepted by the country’s EU-supported coastguards this morning, a day after 43 others died in the first reported refugee shipwreck this year.

The refugees left Zawia on Libya’s northern coast in a wooden boat on Tuesday night.

After the boat sprung a leak later they managed to contact Alarm Phone, an activist network that runs a hotline for people in distress at sea, early this morning,

Alarm Phone’s activists contacted the Maltese, Italian and Libyan authorities as well as the NGO refugee rescue ship Ocean Viking, which returned to the central Mediterranean last week after being locked up in Italy for five months.

German refugee rescue organisation Sea Watch was also contacted and launched its reconnaissance plane Moonbird from the central Mediterranean Italian island of Lampedusa.

Felix Weiss, one of the Moonbird's crew, told the Star what he witnessed once the plane reached the escapees’ position this morning.

“Luckily we found the boat quite soonish. We tried to co-ordinate a rescue with the Ocean Viking  but they were too far away,” Mr Weiss said.

“They were approaching but when we reached the boat, the Libyan Coastguard was only 20 minutes away.”

The Libyan Coastguard’s ship, the Fezzan, took the 48 people on board and headed south-east back to shore.

The Moonbird, Mr Weiss said, was not the only aircraft observing the interception from above.

The Colibri 2, which belongs to French NGO Pilots Volunteers, was on the scene as was the Osprey 1, an aircraft charted by the European Border and Coastguard agency Frontex.  

“It might be possible that the Osprey 1 had shown the Libyan Coastguard to the boat. It left Lampedusa really early in the morning. So there might be the chance they worked together but this is not really clear yet.”

Frontex has been approached for comment.   

Today’s intercept happened just a day after Tuesday’s first confirmed refugee shipwreck of the year, when 43 people lost their lives off the coast of Libya.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), 10 survivors were rescued and brought to shore by Libya’s coastal security.

In a statement today, the IOM and the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR said: “Hundreds of people lost their lives last year attempting to cross the central Mediterranean, where the highest number of fatalities along a single migration journey worldwide occurred.

“IOM and UNHCR fear that, due to the limited ability to monitor routes, the actual number of people who perished in the central Mediterranean during 2020 could be much higher.

“This loss of life highlights once more the need for re-activation of State-led search and rescue operations, a gap NGO and commercial vessels are trying to fill despite their limited resources.

“IOM and UNHCR reiterate their call on the international community for an urgent and measurable shift in the approach to the situation in the Mediterranean. This includes ending returns to unsafe ports, establishing a safe and predictable disembarkation mechanism followed by a tangible show of solidarity from European states with countries receiving high numbers of arrivals.”

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