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Europe’s continued blockade of NGO rescue ships condemned as 45 people die in shipwreck off Libya

“THE mountains of corpses in front of Europe’s walls are growing,” warned NGO rescuers today following the deaths of 45 people in a shipwreck off the Libyan Coast.

The United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced the deaths in a joint statement on Wednesday night.

“Some 37 survivors – mainly from Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana – were rescued by local fishermen and later detained upon disembarkation,” the statement said.

“They reported to IOM staff that 45 others including five children lost their lives when the vessel’s engine exploded off the coast of Zwara.”

The distress hotline organisation Alarm Phone says it is investigating whether the shipwreck was one of the many distress cases its activists have reported to the authorities this week.

On Wednesday, the group announced that four separate boats carrying around 450 people were unaccounted for. The Italian, Maltese, Libyan and Tunisian authorities have largely ignored Alarm Phone’s calls and refused to search for these missing boats.

Twice this week the Libyan coastguard has told Alarm Phone that it could not mount a rescue mission within its own search and rescue area because its vessel was broken.

“It looks like the Libyan Coastguard is always ready to go and capture boats that are about to reach European search and rescue zones,” an Alarm Phone activist told The Civil Fleet today. “But when it is about saving people from drowning in their own area, they refuse to intervene.

“This is becoming a pattern. And it is not a coincidence that most of the shipwrecks that have happened, at least since the beginning of June, occurred just a few nautical miles away from the Libyan coast.

“These cases makes it clear that the so-called Libyan Coastguards receive money to stop migrant boats from reaching Europe, but not to rescue people in distress off their own shores.”

Both Italy and Malta were quick to declare their ports closed to rescued people on NGO vessels at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe. Since then many refugee boats fleeing across the Mediterranean from war-torn Libya have been left to the fates.

Some have made it autonomously to Italy, while others were sent their by the Malta’s Armed Forces.

Some have been intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard, helped along by the European Border and Coastguard Agency’s (Frontex) chartered planes. Others were pushed back to Libya on private vessels coordinated by Malta.

Some were held offshore for weeks in small boats that in pre-Covid-19 times were used for tourists. Others were rescued by commercial shipping vessels but were forced to wait days before Malta eventually let them come ashore.

Some were so unbelievably lucky they were rescued by an NGO vessel. But many more have died, disappeared, or gone completely under the radar.

In their joint statement about the shipwreck, the IOM and UNHCR warned that without an increase in state-led search and rescue ships in the centeal Mediterranean, the risk of similar disasters will increase.

The EU’s Operation Sophia naval mission saved the lives of over 40,000 people between 2015 and 2019, when the mission’s boats were pulled from the sea.

Official documents written by the European External Action Service (EEAS) obtained by The Civil Fleet earlier this year state that Sophia’s replacement, Operation Irini, launched in March, will deploy its naval assets “at least 100km off the Libyan coast, where chances to conduct rescue operations are lower.”

The UNHCR and IOM reiterated the “crucial role” NGO vessels have played since the sharp reduction in European state-led search and rescue.

“The humanitarian imperative of saving lives should not be impeded and legal and logistical restrictions on their work must quickly be lifted,” the agencies warned.

Currently two NGO rescue ships, the Sea Watch 3 and the Ocean Viking, are impounded on the Italian island of Sicily by the authorities for apparent “safety irregularities,” charges the ships’ operators Sea Watch and SOS Mediterranee emphatically reject.

The Italian coastguard authorities also impounded the Aita Mari and Alan Kurdi rescue ships earlier this year on similar grounds.

“The EU bans civil sea rescue and people drown,” the crew of the seized refugee rescue ship Iuventa posted on Twitter this morning.

“The mountains of corpses in front of Europe’s walls are growing.”

Former shipmates on the Iuventa Dariush Beigui and Hendrik Simon were absolutely damning in their assessment of Europe’s role in the situation.

“It’s a shame that most of society is quiet while in front of our doors people are suffering and dying,” they told The Civil Fleet today.

“In the Balkans, in the Aegaen, in the central Mediterranean, in every direction we look, we can see how European forces are kicking human rights with their bloody boots.

“Some years ago Europe just looked away while people drowned. Later it started to sabotage boats and organised secret, illegal pushbacks.

“It’s coastguards don’t care that they have been filmed destroying the engines and tubes on some boats, or abandoning people in life rafts in open seas. Any captain on a private or trading ship would end up in court if they behaved like this.

“Europe has left rescued people on trading ships for weeks while it detains NGO ships because they had ‘too many people on board’ or ‘not enough toilets’.

“It no longer makes any effort to hide that it doesn’t care about non-Europeans. It doesn’t care if they suffer. It doesn’t care if they drown. It doesn’t care if they die.”

Felix Weiss, a spokesman for Sea Watch’s monitoring aircraft Moonbird, told The Civil Fleet that the logical consequences of the EU’s actions is more deaths in the Mediterranean.

“It’s a shame that we have to witness another shipwreck after having seen several lifeless bodies floating in the Mediterranean just a few weeks ago.

“The European authorities have not shown any decency. They have not launched any operations to recover the sighted people and restore a little bit of human dignity on the most inhumane border in the world.

“The last few weeks have shown once again that the European Union prefers to let people drown rather than grant people their right to escape.

“Moreover, it prevents any form of sea rescue and block ships on flimsy grounds.

“The 45 people who drowned in the Mediterranean are at the expense of the European Union. We need safe escape routes so that this accident is the last.

“We mourn the deaths and stand in full solidarity with them, their families and every person who flees across the Mediterranean.”

Meanwhile, the Sea Watch 4 and the Spanish charity Open Arm’s ship, the Astral, are both heading towards the Libyan search and rescue zone in the central Mediterranean.

Open Arm’s Riccardo Gati, who spoke to The Civil Fleet today from the Astral, said: “We are heading to the area because European governments are not taking responsibility for these people.

“Worse, there is an active movement between the different governments of the European Union to avoid rescuing people themselves and to stop NGO vessels from doing that too.

“Everybody knows that their plan is to externalise the border of the European Union.

“We are going there to try to do something about the sad situation these people escaping Libya are facing day after day.”

Top image: Waves, Tony Hisgett/Creative Commons

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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