By Hadi Fornaji.
Tripoli, 14 April 2015:
At least 400 migrants may have drowned since Friday, as the rising tide of asylum seekers . . .[restrict]leaving Libya by boat turned into a tsunami numbering some 7,000, most of whom have been picked up by the merchant ships and Italian, Maltese and Libyan coastguards.
The Italian coastguard on Monday rescued some 144 from a large vessel that had sunk off the Libyan coast. They also recovered nine bodies. However survivors told Save the Children helpers in Italy that there had been over 550 people aboard the stricken vessel. The Italians told the news agency AFP that this figure fitted the size of the doomed craft. Libyan people-smugglers never let the smallest spaces go unfilled. An air and sea search which was launched immediately failed to find any other survivors.
It is thought that good weather brought about this sudden surge of refugee vessels. In just three days to Sunday, 13 separate migrant boats were found, the majority of them by Italian naval and coastguard patrols. The previous weekend, the Italians said that they had picked up around 2,000 migrants.
One rickety boat intercepted by the Libyan coastguard off Zuwara reportedly only had enough fuel on board to get the migrants into international waters.
In another incident at the weekend, around 270 illegal migrants were brought ashore in Misrata. A local asked on social media how the town was supposed to feed them.
It was not only coastguard vessels that have been involved. An unnamed merchant vessel picked up several hundred refugees on Sunday. A pregnant Somali woman taken aboard developed abdominal pains and began vomiting. An Italian military helicopter airlifted the woman to Malta for treatment.
An officer at the Rome operations’ centre of the EU’s Frontex border patrol said five Italian and Maltese patrol boats as well as several merchant ships had been rescuing migrants from overcrowded vessels. He told the Times of Malta on Sunday that the number of rescues was unprecedented. “It is an absolute crisis he said …We’ve never seen anything like this and I don’t think we’ve ever had a day like today at this time of year”.
A source in Libya told the newspaper that dozens of migrant boats were being launched, many from Sabratha, Zawi and Zuwara. “The dinghies they are using are absolutely worthless. They’re unable to keep afloat even after a few dozen miles, which means that if they had to start the journey from the Libyan coast, they would sink within the country’s territorial waters”.
In Rome today, Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni bemoaned the lack of intelligence on the people-smugglers and warned that among the thousands migrants arriving in Italy, there could be terrorists.
Illegal immigration, he said, had to be tackled at the roots, which meant stabilising Libya. “The organisations responsible for human trafficking have to be stopped” he said.