Rescue groups and the Vatican have expressed anguish at the deaths of an estimated 130 migrants whose boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday.
The dangerously overcrowded rubber dinghy had been spotted in the sea north of Libya on Wednesday. By the time a charity rescue ship arrived, it had overturned, and all the occupants are believed to have drowned.
Aid group Alarm Phone said in a tweet that it had been in contact with the dinghy for about 10 hours on Wednesday and “repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation on board to European and Libyan authorities”.
Despite this, the group added, "only non-state actors actively searched for the boat in distress at sea”.
The tragedy comes amid escalating concerns that central Mediterranean countries are choosing not to dispatch vessels to save migrants and refugees at sea, putting their lives at risk.
In his Sunday address to crowds gathered St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Pope Francis called the disaster a “moment of shame.”
"One hundred and thirty migrants died in the sea,” he said. “They are persons, human lives, who for two entire days implored in vain for help, help that didn't arrive… Let us pray for those who can help but who prefer to look the other way. Let’s pray for them in silence.”
Boat left to founder in metres-high waves
European Union border protection agency Frontex told AP that it had alerted Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities after one of its patrol planes spotted the dinghy.
Spokesman Krzysztof Borowski added: “Unfortunately, the deadly weather that occurred over the last few days in that area made it almost impossible to do any type of rescue mission.”
He blamed the recklessness of people-smugglers for the loss of life: “There were massive waves, two to three meters high. It was almost guaranteed that a rubber dinghy would overturn and all the people end up in the sea.”
Ocean Viking, a rescue ship operated by the charity group SOS Mediterranee, together with MY ROSE, one of three merchant vessels which complied with requests from Italy and Libya to lend assistance, reached the site on Thursday.
They found several bodies, one of them hunched over a life preserver, but no survivors. In a statement posted on its website, SOS Mediterannee said it was “heartbroken” by the outcome, adding: “We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones.”
According to Ocean Viking's log, a Libyan coast guard vessel, Ubari, was ostensibly supposedly headed to the dinghy's aid. After the ship arrived and found the bodies, it noted in its log: “There is no sign of patrol vessel Ubari in the vicinity nor [was] contact established with the Ocean Viking.”
Charities claim Libyan coast guard is not fit for purpose
The Libyan coast guard has said that bad weather, combined with the need to rescue other migrants off the Libyan coast, prevented its involvement in the efforts to help the dinghy.
Ubari was supplied by Italy to Libya's coast guard in 2018 and had also rescued 104 migrants and recovered two bodies from a traffickers' boat off the country's coast on Thursday, according to Italian news reports.
Italy has trained and equipped the Libyan coast guard, but has come under fire from aid groups, which say the fleet in the conflict-riven north African country is not up to the task.
U.N. refugee agencies and human rights organizations have also repeatedly warned about the situation faced by those migrants rescued by the Libyan coast guard at sea.
These vulnerable people are often brought back to detention centers and kept in squalid, inhumane conditions, with allegations of torture and harsh treatment rife. Some 4,000 would-be migrants are currently thought to be housed in Libyan detention centers.
Earlier in April during a visit to Libya, Italian Premier Mario Draghi sparked criticism by expressing his “satisfaction” with the work of the Libyan coast guard. A spokesperson for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) snapped: “A salvage at sea ends only when a safe harbor is reached. If migrants and refugees are returned to Libya, it is an endorsement of violence and brutality in detention centers. There is little to be satisfied with.”
Both Italy and Malta have contended that charity rescue ships are helping the migrants, who pay Libyan-based smugglers for passage, to safely reach European shores.
Both nations have also demanded that other EU countries take in more of the rescued migrants, many of whom ultimately hope to find relatives and jobs in northern Europe.
Another 100 migrants and refugees rescued at sea
Also on Sunday, the Italian coast guard reported that it had rescued another overcrowded motorised fishing boat struggling in towering waves and high winds.
The vessel reportedly had at least 100 passengers onboard, including children. People were crowded on the bridge and below deck when it was first spotted on Saturday. When the motor stopped working it was towed to the Italian mainland, where it arrived in port on Sunday.
SOS Mediteranee’s Italy director-general Valeria Taurino also said on Saturday that another boat was reported to be in distress, with 42 migrants aboard, but couldn’t be located.