Pope slams failure to save drowning migrants as ‘moment of shame’

Frontex said that it had alerted Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities after one of its patrol planes located the dinghy. “Only non-state actors actively searched for the boat in distress at sea.”
Monday 26/04/2021
Migrants arrive at a naval base in the Libyan capital of Tripoli on March 31, 2021, after the coastguard intercepted an inflatable boat carrying 138 Europe-bound migrants off its west coast. AFP
Migrants arrive at a naval base in the Libyan capital of Tripoli on March 31, 2021, after the coastguard intercepted an inflatable boat carrying 138 Europe-bound migrants off its west coast. AFP

ROME--An SOS Wednesday from around 130 migrants launched by Libyan people-smugglers into a stormy Mediterranean was not acted on by three countries, according to Non-Government Organisations.

The raft was spotted Wednesday by a patrol aircraft from the EU Frontex border patrol operation which alerted the authorities in Italy, Malta and Libya. The following day all the migrants were dead.

This inaction was condemned by Pope Francis on Sunday as a “moment of shame”.

He told the public in St. Peter’s Square  “Let us pray … for those who can help but who prefer to look the other way. Let’s pray for them in silence,”

The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran the headline  “Abandoned and buried at sea” over an article decrying the latest deaths of migrants who put to sea in traffickers’ unseaworthy boats, amid laments that central Mediterranean nations are choosing not to dispatch vessels to save them.

The Libyan coast guard has said 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, supplied by Italy to Libya’s coast guard in 2018, had rescued 104 migrants and recovered two bodies from a traffickers’ boat off the country’s coast on Thursday, according to Italian news reports.

When a charity rescue vessel did reach the location the next day, it found a few bodies floating beside the partially deflated and capsized raft.

Aid group Alarm Phone said in a tweet that despite a spotter plane locating an overcrowded ship in the sea north of Libya on Wednesday and pleas for help from the occupants, “only non-state actors actively searched for the boat in distress at sea.”

By the time a charity rescue ship reached the site on Thursday evening, the boat had capsized and all the estimated 130 occupants are believed to have drowned.

The existence of the dangerously overcrowded boat was first signalled in a call to the aid group Alarm Phone on Wednesday.

Alarm Phone said it was in contact with the dinghy over a period of ten hours on Wednesday. It said it “repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation on board to European and Libyan authorities and the wider public.”

The European Union border protection agency Frontex told AP that it had alerted Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities after one of its patrol planes located the dinghy.

“Despite Frontex spotting the distressed boat from the sky, only non-state actors actively searched for the boat in distress at sea,” Alarm Phone said in a tweeted statement.

Ocean Viking, a rescue ship operated by the charity group SOS Mediterranée, 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 and found several bodies, one of them hunched over a life preserver, but no survivors.

Frontex spokesman Krzysztof Borowski blamed the incident on bad weather.

“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 said in a Zoom interview on Saturday from Warsaw, Poland, where the EU agency is based.

According to Ocean Viking’s log, a Libyan coast guard vessel, Ubari, was supposedly headed to the dinghy’s aid.

When the Ocean Viking arrived and found the bodies, it noted in its log that “there is no sign of patrol vessel Ubari in the vicinity nor contact established with the Ocean Viking.”

The traffickers were particularly reckless to launch the doomed dinghy in such conditions, Frontex’s Borowski said. “There were massive waves, two to three meters (6.6 to 10 feet) high. It was almost guaranteed that a rubber dinghy would overturn and people all end up in the sea.”

Italy trained and equipped the Libyan coast guard but has come under fire from aid groups, which say the fleet in the violence-wracked north African nation is not up to the task. Additionally, when the Libyan coast guard does rescue migrants from flimsy dinghies or fishing boats, they are brought back to inhumane conditions in detention centres, UN refugee agencies and human rights groups have lamented.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi sparked criticism when, during a recent visit to Libya, he praised the work of the Libyan coast guard.

Both Italy and Malta have been contended that charity ships in effect help ensure that the migrants, who pay the Libyan-based smugglers, to safely reach European shores. Both nations also insist — mainly in vain — that fellow European Union countries should take in far more rescued migrants, many of whom ultimately hope to find relatives and jobs in northern Europe.

On Saturday, another boat was reported to be in distress, with 42 migrants aboard, but it couldn’t be located, SOS Mediterranée’s Italy director general, Valeria Taurino, told Italian Rai state TV. Lamenting the loss of lives, Taurino said the charity calls on Europe “to take up its responsibilities” and not to block NGO rescue boats from operating.

Italy has repeatedly kept charity rescue ships in port for weeks for administrative inspections after the vessels brought rescued migrants to Italian shores.

On Sunday, the Italian coast guard said that with a help of a container ship in the waters off Italy, it aided an overcrowded motorised fishing boat struggling in towering waves and stiff winds.

The vessel, with at least 100 passengers aboard, including children, had people crowded on the bridge and below deck when it was spotted on Saturday, a coast guard statement said. After the boat’s motor broke down, it was towed to the Italian mainland, where it arrived in port on Sunday. The exact number and nationalities of those rescued, who are presumably migrants, weren’t immediately available.