Italy – IOM teams in Italy reported Tuesday (17/2) that 933 migrants have arrived on the island of Lampedusa during the past 24 hours, bringing to at least 3,800 the total number of survivors rescued from the Mediterranean since Friday (13/2).
In addition to nearly one thousand migrants now being processed in Lampedusa – where the capacity of the reception centre is normally just 400 – almost 300 more either are bound for the port of Pozzallo, on the island of Sicily, or are already in a reception centre there. Three hundred more are en route to the port of Calabria, while 640 rescued migrants are bound for Porto Empedocle, also in Sicily. Late Monday IOM learned that 265 rescued migrants also are bound for Lampedusa.
Italy’s Ministry of Interior reported 3,528 migrants arrived in Italy by sea in January. Totals for February already have topped last month’s arrivals, indicating 2015’s human smuggling season is starting earlier than in years past, with potentially lethal consequences. In 2014 IOM reported 3,279 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean bound for Europe.
It is not yet known how many fatalities may have occurred during what is believed to have been a flotilla of a dozen or more inflatable boats that left Libya last Tuesday, just days after a smaller fleet foundered, killing an estimated 330 migrants, most of them from Sub-Saharan Africa.
As violence escalates in Libya, IOM has called for world governments to act swiftly to face the growing threat to migrants, as over 1,600 people were rescued from unseaworthy boats this weekend.
“This is a very clear signal that the situation in Libya is unravelling,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. “We must stand ready to assist thousands of extremely vulnerable people who need our help.”
IOM yesterday (16/2) reported the rescue since Friday of over 1,600 migrants discovered on multiple vessels just days after some 330 people were reported lost, presumed drowned, the previous weekend. The departures illustrate the humanitarian emergency unfolding across the North African country.
IOM staffers in Sicily and Lampedusa are assisting Italian authorities as they care for the latest victims of criminal Libyan gangs, who reportedly beat and robbed victims, while forcing them into unseaworthy boats on a beach 15 km from Tripoli. One survivor told IOM: “They forced us to leave using guns; they beat many of us and took all our belongings.”
No deaths have been reported in almost a week. But IOM staff may learn of fatalities as they interview the hundreds of survivors due to arrive in Italy during the coming days.
IOM said that the migrants were rescued starting Friday, February 13 by the Italian Coast Guard and other ships patrolling the Mediterranean. Most are from Sub-Saharan Africa, although at least 200 Somali migrants are among the survivors.
Director of IOM’s Coordinating Office for the Mediterranean Federico Soda warned that he expects voyages like these will continue as Libya’s violence worsens.
“Migrants are forced to travel on unseaworthy boats and in dire weather conditions,” Soda said. “Given these circumstances, the (relatively small) number and the kind of ships used at the moment would be unable to rescue a large number of people fleeing Libya.”
Libya’s deepening chaos raises the stakes for Italy and all of Europe as officials across the continent debate the future of the European Union (EU)’s border control policies.
Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum, in place from October 2013 until late last year, was responsible for the rescue of over 172,000 migrants put out to sea by smuggling gangs in Africa. It has been replaced by an EU programme called Triton, which is administered by the Frontex EU border agency.
“The current system, Triton, patrolling the Mediterranean clearly is inadequate in the face of this situation,” Ambassador Swing added. “It is necessary to establish immediately a rescue system on the high seas that can respond to this emergency effectively to save migrants off Libya’s coast.”
Chilling details still are emerging from the boats that departed Libya over a week ago. “D”, a 20-year-old migrant from Mali, among the survivors arriving in Lampedusa last week, said he witnessed the drowning of dozens of his fellow passengers.
“We left on a rubber dinghy with more than 100 [passengers],” “D” told IOM, explaining how four inflatable vessels departed from a beach 15 km from Tripoli, on Saturday, February 7. “On Sunday, around 11.00 am, our dinghy collapsed. Thirty people fell in the water, while I held on to the boat with another 70.”
“D” explained that he held on until 3.00 pm the next day. “For hours I watched as my fellow passengers died one by one, exhausted by the cold, the waves, and the rain, letting themselves fall in the sea. I saw them drift away, with their hands close to the surface,” he said.