By Nihal Zaroug
Tripoli, 29 July:
Naval forces from Italy and Libya have been involved in two separate major rescue operations involving Somali . . .[restrict]illegal migrants who had set sail from Libya.
Yesterday afternoon, the Italian Coast Guard rescued 75 people in the Sar area between Libya and Malta. They were trying to get to Italy in a rubber dingy. Numbers included 24 women, four of them pregnant, and three children. They were transferred to two patrol boats and taken to the island of Lampedusa.
On Friday, some 90 Somali migrants were rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard after their rickety boat got into difficulties. The migrants, who also included some Nigeriens and Bangladeshis, are said to have set sail for Italy from Tripoli. According to the Libyan News Agency WAL, coast guards and port security from Misrata together with the navy were able to rescue them.
They had drifted at sea for four days and attempted to contact coastguards but were unsuccessful. The boats generator had failed and clean water supplies were finished as reported by the BBC.
Abdi Amin Omar, a Somali national among those stranded at sea, managed to call BBC’s Somali Service on Thursday night and told them “We desperately need help. Some of us are badly injured and there are several vulnerable pregnant women.”
In Misrata, the relevant authorities gave the immigrants first aid before transferring them to Misrata Illegal Immigration Office of the Ministry of Interior.
There were initial reports that the Misrata rescue was a joint Libyan-Italian operation. Another migrant on board the boat managed to phone an official in Puntland, in northern Somalia, calling for help. The man, named as Abdurrahiman Farula, was reported as saying that had he contacted the Libyan and Italian authorities and that the Italian Navy had responded immediately.
The Italian authorities, however, have denied any involvement in the Misrata rescue other than the Italian authorities reporting the emergency to the Libyans.
“The Italians had not and could not have any role whatsoever”, said Italian ambassador to Libya, Guiseppe Buccino Grimaldi. “There is no joint patrolling any more’, he noted. In rescue operations in the Mediterranean, he explained, cooperation was the simple process of the Italians alerting the coastguards of the country nearest to where the emergency was.
The ambassador was keen to squash ideas that the rescued migrants had been “push backed” to Libya. In February, Italy was ordered to compensate a group of Somali and Eritrean migrants it had intercepted and sent back to Libya in 2009. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Italy had failed to uphold the principle that “obligates states not to forcibly return people to countries where they face persecution or serious harm”.
There was no forcing the migrants back to Libya last week, the ambassador insisted. “As the Italian Foreign Minister and Interior Minister have clearly stated, Italy fully abides by international law and ECHR rulings.” There has been “absolutely no pushing from my country”, he stated.
Libya, with the help of the EU and other international bodies, has been working on a voluntary repatriation programme for migrants, but it has not halted the constant steam of people trying to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels, risking their lives to reach Europe.
Late last month, 55 migrants of mixed African nationality left Libya for Italy but never reached land, after being stranded for 15 days at sea. The only survivor was an Eritrean man who reported that all the other passengers had died of dehydration. The vessel, an inflatable boat had reached the Italian coast but was tragically forced back to sea by strong winds. The sole survivor was found off the Tunisian coast on 9 July, floating on remnants of the boat.
According to a UNHCR press release, this year alone over 2,300 people left Libya for Italy and Malta, and estimates as high as 170 people dead or lost at sea while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Alexander Aleinikoff, called “upon all vessels at sea to be on heightened alert for migrants and refugees needing rescue in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world and it is imperative that the time-honoured tradition of rescue at sea be upheld.”