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EUROPEAN states chose to allow 12 refugees to die of thirst or drown while orchestrating the forced return of the 51 survivors to Libya, a migrant rights activist network has charged.
Alarm Phone, which operates a hotline for migrants in distress at sea, was contacted last weekend by four boats in distress in the Mediterranean.
One of those boats was carrying 63 people, including seven women and three children, and contacted Alarm Phone on April 10.
Over the next few days, Alarm Phone says that it repeatedly provided the Libyan, Italian and Maltese coastguards with the refugee boat’s GPS position.
On April 12 the refugees’ boat made it into Malta’s search-and-rescue zone, but the island nation did not pick them up.
The following day was the last time the activists heard from the refugees until April 15, when they were informed that the survivors and the bodies of seven others who died from dehydration and hunger had been returned to Libya on a fishing boat.
The survivors were told were being taken to Europe.
Alarm Phone says that planes from the Italian, Maltese and the European Union’s border and coastguard agency Frontex spotted the boat on several occasions yet no rescue was co-ordinated.
A Portuguese cargo ship, the Ivan, came within a mile of the refugees on April 14 but was stopped from carrying out a rescue by bad weather and orders not to do so by Malta.
According to testimonies provided to Alarm Phone, three people drowned trying to swim to the Ivan. Four others threw themselves overboard in distress.
“In the name of the victims and the survivors who are now locked away in the inhumane Tarik al-Sikka detention centre in Tripoli, Libya, we hold [Malta, Italy, Libya, Portugal, Germany and Frontex] to account for failing to intervene and rescue, as well as for proactively creating the conditions that allowed for this to occur,” Alarm Phone said.
“This case, as well as several other distress cases that the Alarm Phone has received, highlights once more the devastating effects of EU border policies on migrant lives.
“It is a case not only of inaction but of concerted efforts to prevent those in distress from reaching Europe, at all costs.
“We know that relatives and friends of the deceased will not get their loved ones back. And we know that those who are now again imprisoned in horrible camps in Libya will face cruelty and hardship.
“We tried but failed to mobilise rescue while all 63 people were still alive. We failed because European actors were set on letting them die.”
Meanwhile, the situation onboard the Alan Kurdi and Aita Maria rescue ships remains dire as they wait in Italian waters for a port.
Sea Eye, the German charity which operates the Alan Kurdi, tweeted yesterday that a man had jumped overboard in desperation over his situation.
Late on Wednesday night, three people, one of whom also attempted to take their own life, were evacuated from the ship to Italy.
“Very soon today, the remaining 146 people on board of our ship are to be transferred to an Italian ship, the Rubattino,” Sea Eye spokesman Simon Pompe told the Star.
“The coast guard will be present to monitor with patrol boats. Following instructions, the Alan Kurdi is waiting in the bay of Palermo right now.
“The rescued people spent 12 days at sea — our longest blockade ever. The suffering that these people went through is immense.”
At the time of publishing, 146 refugees are still waiting for the Italian coastguard to transfer them to shore.
The Aita Maria, which picked up 47 survivors on Monday from one of the four boats Alarm Phone was contacted by, is also waiting for a port of safety.
Eleven people have been evacuated from the ship in the last four days.
“Italy has given us orders to sail to the west of Sicily,” the Aita Maria’s operator Humanitarian Maritime Salvage (SMH) tweeted this afternoon.
“Thirty-six people are still on board [and are] very weak. The law is clear: they must disembark as soon as possible at the nearest safe harbour.”
Elsewhere the two charities operating the Ocean Viking, SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), have decided to part ways, citing differences over when to return to sea as the world battles with the Covid-19 pandemic.
SOS Mediterranee’s director of operations Frederic Penard said: “While we are saddened by the decision of MSF to withdraw from the operation, this does not undermine our capacity nor our determination to resume life-saving operations with the Ocean Viking as early as possible.
“This remains our duty as citizens, Europeans and seafarers as the desperate reality unfolding in the central Mediterranean is leaving men, women and children fleeing Libya with barely any chance of survival.”
MSF operations manager Annemarie Loof said: “Although both MSF and SOS Mediterranee agree on the vital need for our lifesaving work at sea, SOS Mediterranee felt further assurance from states regarding a place of safety was necessary before sailing.
“For MSF, the humanitarian imperative to act was immediate, with or without such assurances: we could not stand by with a fully equipped search and rescue ship in port as people continue to flee Libya and risk drowning.
“As such, and despite recognising that governments’ attempts to exacerbate existing barriers to our mission was a real dilemma, MSF has taken the very difficult decision to end our partnership with SOS Mediterranee.”
Both SOS Mediterranee and MSF have called on Europe to stop using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to let people fleeing Libya and elsewhere drown at sea.
UPDATE April 17 (19:18)
The Alan Kurdi’s refugees have finally been taken in by the Italian authorities.
Sea Eye said in a statement released this evening: “After an almost two-week blockade, the odyssey of the German rescue ship Alan Kurdi ended on Friday, close to the port of Palermo.
“Under the co-ordination of the Italian Red Cross, the evacuation of 146 rescued people onto the Italian passenger ship Raffaele Rubattino began on Friday afternoon.
“On the Italian ferry, people are now to be quarantined for another 14 days. So far, it is still unclear how it will go on for the people afterwards.
“Italy has temporarily closed its ports for the disembarkation of people rescued from distress at sea, due to the general health emergency.
“To date, the authorities have not published any plans about a port of disembarkation and the distribution of refugees.”
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