Over 100 African migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean

Aid groups fear that some 170 migrants could be dead after two dinghies sank in separate incidents after leaving Libya and Morocco. Italian President Sergio Mattarella has expressed his "deep sorrow."

Some 170 migrants are feared to have drowned the Mediterranean Sea after two dinghies sank in separate incidents near Libya and Morocco.

Three migrants rescued by the Italian navy said 120 people had been on their dinghy when it sank on Friday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said. Most of the passengers were from West Africa, it added.

The dinghy left Gasr Garabulli in Libya on Thursday evening and began to sink about 10 to 11 hours later, IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said. Ten of the passengers were women and two were children, he added.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

First on site

At around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 31, the search-and-rescue vessel Aquarius, along with the Libyan coast guard, was alerted by the Italian Rescue Maritime Coordination Center (IMRCC) that a rubber boat was in distress in international waters. Aquarius is manned by rescue workers from SOS Mediteranee, medics from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and a nautical and technical crew.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

People in distress

Aquarius made first contact with the rubber boat in international waters at around 11:00 a.m. Soon after, the SOS head coordinator was informed by IMRCC that the Libyan coastguard would take charge of the rescue operation. As people in the overcrowded rubber boat, visibly in distress, waved frantically, Aquarius was instructed to standby and wait for further instructions.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Helping hand

Two hours later, and with no Libyan coastguard in sight, the Aquarius was able to convince the IMRCC and the Libyans to allow them to rescue children, women and families. They evacuated 39 vulnerable people. They had to leave the remaining 80-90 men on the rubber boat to the Libyan coastguard. The Aquarius has the capacity to carry 500 rescued people.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

All in it together

MSF nurse Sylvie was on board the Aquarius' fast-speed rescue boat, whose personnel identified medical and vulnerable cases later evacuated to the NGO ship. Over the course of three missions, the staff saved 292 people from more than 20 countries, the majority from sub-Saharan Africa. Besides showing signs of dehydration, exhaustion and weakness, some also displayed signs of physical abuse.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Having fun

As parents rested on the ship's deck, MSF logistician Francois took a moment to interact with the newly arrived children. Those rescued got a chance to bond with the ship's crew as well as to express themselves in safe and secure surroundings.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Doctor's orders

Dr. Dan from California gave each new arrival a check-up to see whether anyone was in need of urgent medical care. Once on land, those rescued are examined by local medical staff in Italy.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Holding tight in rough weather

As the vessel pitched and rolled in strong winds, SOS Mediteranee team member Theo cuddled a child rescued the day before. "As a seaman it's your duty to save anybody in distress," he said. "We all shed tears yesterday. I had a baby and children in my arms. We helped some women. What's the most important is to get all these out people out of the water, to save them and for them to survive."

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Thanking the Lord

As the Aquarius approached the Sicilian city of Messina, the designated Italian port of safety, many of the rescued women began singing French and English gospel songs praising the Lord and thanking him for safe passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

On terra firma

Francois personally helped all 292 men, women and children disembark. "Emotionally it was really hard, because once the last guy stepped out on shore, it was over. I could just call everyone and say disembarkation successfully finished, and then I felt empty."

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Thank-you kiss

These lucky people made it to Europe. According to international NGOs figures, between 750,000 and 900,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers remain trapped in Libya, whose migrant detention centers the UN has called inhumane. Many see merely one way out: to attempt to cross one of the world's most deadly seas in rubber dinghies that can only be considered floating death traps.

The three rescued migrants were being treated for hypothermia at a hospital on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The navy said it saw three dead bodies in the sea when it rescued the three survivors.

Read more: Germany, France call for 'European solution' to migration

Sea Watch rescue

An Italian naval patrol plane had tried to help the migrants after spotting the sinking dinghy earlier on Friday, Rear Admiral Fabio Agostini told broadcaster RaiNews24. But the aircraft was forced to leave due to a lack of fuel, he said.

Libya sent a merchant ship to the area where the boat sank to find survivors, but it called the effort off after failing to find anybody.

German aid group Sea Watch said it had rescued 47 migrants from an inflatable boat on Saturday, but added that it did not know if the migrants belonged to the Gasr dinghy.

Sinking off Morocco

Fifty-three migrants who left Morocco on a dinghy were also feared dead after a survivor told Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish aid organization, that the dinghy they were on had an unspecified collision in the Alboran Sea.

Now live
02:03 mins.
DW News | 27.07.2018

Migrants switch to western Mediterranean route

The UN's refugee agency said it could not confirm either report, but added that it was "appalled" by the news.

Read more: Europe's apathy toward humanitarian rescue outrages NGOs

In Italy, President Sergio Mattarella expressed his "deep sorrow for the tragedy that has taken place in the Mediterranean."

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that he was "shocked" by the incident and that Italy would continue fighting human traffickers in North Africa.

But the country's anti-migrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said the reported deaths were "proof" that Italy's policy of barring ships carrying migrants from docking in Italian ports was working.

"If you reopen the ports, more people will die," Salvini said.

Migrant arrivals to Europe in the first 16 days of 2019 totaled 4,449, almost all by sea and more than the 2,964 people who arrived in the same period of 2018, according to the IOM.

The organization said last year, some 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean while 116,959 people reached Europe by sea.

amp/sms (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.