Meanwhile, over 400 refugees on board the Geo Barents wait for Europe to finally allow them to come ashore
THE DEATHS of seven refugees in the Mediterranean could have been prevented had the authorities arrived earlier, civilian rescuers charged today.
The authorities were first alerted to a boat in distress carrying what was later confirmed to be over 270 people near Malta yesterday evening by the activist-run distress hotline organisation Alarm Phone.
“Communication is difficult due to strong winds, but they were urgently calling for help until we lost contact [two hours] ago,” the activists said yesterday.
Around 8pm local time, the Aita Mari — a ship operated by Basque charity Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH) — was heading south of the Italian island of Lampedusa when it overheard a conversation on the radio between a fishing vessel and the authorities about a boat in distress.
The crew set a course for the refugees’ approximate position, and eventually found them after sunset, crowded onto a blue wooden boat about 15 metres long. They contacted the Spanish, Italian and Maltese authorities.
“The Italian authorities at midnight [told us] that several rescue ships would go to the area,” Aita Mari said today. “[They] ordered the [us] not to intervene, only to monitor [the refugees] position.”
The Aita Mari’s crew watched on when the three Italian coastguard ships finally arrived and took the refugees to Lampedusa.
“The  people in distress were finally rescued by Italian coastguard, who arrived six hours after our alert and arrived after the arrival of the Aita Mari rescue ship,” Alarm Phone said in social media this morning.
“Seven of the people on board were found dead, probably of hypothermia. Their deaths could have been prevented.
“…[They] tried to escape from Libya, and called us in distress. This ongoing dying and the inhumane situation in Libya are the reasons why we join the call to evacuate refugees from Libya.”
Over 700 people were rescued in the Mediterranean at the weekend by three civilian rescue ships.
The Louise Michel disembarked 58 exhausted refugees in Lampedusa on Saturday after the authorities kept the ship at sea for three days.
Italian charity Mediterranea Saving Human’s ship, the Mare Jonio, also finished its rescue of 214 refugees on Saturday.
But the Geo Barents, carrying 439 people rescued in six separate operations since last Thursday, is still without a port.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said today that Malta has ignored its ship’s requests for a place of safety twice, and that it is now seeking assistance from Italy.
“The survivors have no serious medical concerns, but many are suffering from the physical and psychological effects of their time in Libya, where they were victims of extreme violence,” MSF medical team leader Alida Serracchieri said.
“They are all exhausted. They need a place to disembark in safety, to recover and receive adequate assistance.”
Hager Saadallah, the psychologist on board, said many people are experiencing psychological distress after surviving traumatic events in Libya, along their routes and in their countries of origin, and that their mental health state is now deteriorating after several days on the ship.
“The most common symptoms I’ve assessed are psychosomatic pain, anxious overthinking, sleeping issues, traumatic flashbacks and generalized distress,” Saadallah says.
“The living conditions on board can potentially lead to a further deterioration of these symptoms: anxiety and tensions are rising due to the uncertainty about their future. The work of processing their trauma can only start once survivors are in a safe and secure environment on land.”
One of the rescued on board the ship, Jimmy (not his real name) told MSF that he spent 18 months in Libya and attempted to cross the sea four times.
“The third time [the Libyan Coastguard] caught me at sea and I was taken to prison. [The guards in the prison/detention centre] told me that I had to pay to be freed,” he said.
“[In the detention centre] I had just one piece of bread to eat per day; they gave us the toilet water to drink. They force us to call our families to ask for ransom, and they threaten to kill us [if they don’t pay].
“Libya makes you mentally ill, and you have no idea how to get out of there.”
Top image shows the roughly 270 refugees on board a wodden boat in the Mediterranean last night [Pic: Humanitarian Maritime Rescue]