Aid group: Ships not willing to save Mediterranean migrants

ROME — Migrants in distress at sea have told their rescuers that several ships passed them by without offering assistance, a European aid group said Sunday while seeking safe harbour for a rescue vessel with 141 migrants aboard.

SOS Mediterranee said that due to the recent refusal of Italy and Malta to let rescue vessels carrying migrants dock, ships might be now unwilling to do rescues “due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety.”

On Friday the group’s chartered ship Aquarius, which it operates in partnership with Doctors Without Borders, rescued 141 people in waters off Libya. Of these, 25 were found adrift on a small wooden boat that had no motor and was believed to have been at sea for about 35 hours, the group said. The other 116 people, including 67 unaccompanied minors, were rescued later that day, it said.

Nearly three-quarters of those rescued originate from Somalia and Eritrea. Many migrants recounted how they were “held in inhumane conditions in Libya,” where human traffickers are based, the aid group aid.

It added that Libya’s rescue co-ordination authorities wouldn’t provide the Aquarius with “a place of safety” and asked it to request safe harbour from another country’s authorities.

The Aquarius was sailing north in the Mediterranean Sunday in hopes of receiving docking permission from another country.

“What is of utmost importance is that the survivors are brought to a place of safety without delay, where their basic needs can be met and where they can be protected from abuse,” the group quoted Nick Romaniuk, its search and rescue co-ordinator as saying. It said many aboard were very weak and malnourished.

In June, Aquarius was forced to sail north for days with more than 600 migrants to Spain after Italy and Malta refused it docking permission. Since then, other private rescue vessels have had to wait for days until some country agreed to let migrants disembark.

Italy’s new populist government has vowed that no more private aid ships will bring migrants to Italian shores.

Although arrivals in Italy of rescued migrants smuggled from Libya have sharply dropped off this year compared to previous years, some 600,000 reached Italian ports in the last few years. Italy demands fellow European Union countries take the asylum-seekers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The tiny EU island nation of Malta says it can’t handle large numbers of migrants.

Cargo and other commercial vessels often have plucked migrants to safety from deflating rubber dinghies and rickety wooden boats. But with Italy’s crackdown, commercial ships risk being blocked for days at sea, unable to carry out their business. Recently a support ship for an offshore oil platform was left in limbo for days after rescuing migrants.

SOS Mediterranee said the Libya rescue co-ordinationcentre didn’t inform it about migrant boats in distress despite knowing the Aquarius was nearby.

“It was extremely fortunate that we spotted these boats in distress ourselves” on Friday, the group said.

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