Mediterranean Migrant Rescuers Need Rescuing

A record-setting weekend of maritime migrant rescues almost claimed rescuers as victims.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

REGGIO CALABRIA, Italy—Becoming a victim is surely a rescuer’s worst nightmare. But on Sunday in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, NGO charity rescue vessels started tweeting very distressing messages that seemed to foreshadow a very serious situation.

The first came from the German NGO Jugend Rettet, whose rescue vessel Iuventa was chock full of migrants, including seven pregnant women, from multiple rescues over a 40 hour period in which nearly 7,000 migrants and refugees were saved from drowning in multiple operations. They also sent out emails to media they knew, urging them to try to get the word out that they were in dire need.

Their steering had gone under the weight of their human cargo and there were more rubber dinghies on the horizon as dark clouds signaled a coming sea storm. They had used all their life jackets, too, meaning even those who had been rescued from deadly rubber dinghies were at risk again.

Then the German NGO Sea Eye, which was making its way to help the Iuventa faced similar challenges trying to pluck as many people at risk of drowning from the increasingly rough seas as they could without putting their own rescue vessel at risk. They, too, started facing navigational challenges as seas worsened and their passengers shifted nervously.

Jugend Rettet first tweeted: “MAYDAY RELAY MAYDAY RELAY MAYDAY RELAY! all stations all! This is Jugend rettet! We are in distress! Position: 33°14´N 012°26´E.”

Then another tweet: “Iuventa + @seaeyeorg need urgend [sic] help. Several hundred people in rubberboats nearby. Both NGOs in distress. Bad weather on its way!”

Then, another: “#Iuventa and @seaeyeorg are unable to move due to the high amount of people on board and nearby us in rubberboats! We need help”

The German NGO ships had come to the aid of the Mobile Offshore Aid Station or MOAS. They, too, were at capacity but there were more stranded rubber dinghies and dangerous wooden fishing boats full of people.

MOAS had spent the previous night monitoring several boats with more than 1,000 people they could not assist because their own boat, the Phoenix, was full. “Dramatic situation unfolding in #Med. #MOAS crew caring for 453 people aboard; assisting 1000+ people on rubber boats around,” their crew tweeted.

Later they witnessed a rubber dinghy butted up to a merchant vessel that did not have the capacity to rescue them, so the migrants and refugees were essentially holding on for dear life.

By late Sunday night, many of the migrants had been offloaded from the over-capacity rescue vehicles to other vessels, including passing merchant ships that were summoned to the maritime emergencies. The three rescue boats in distress were limping toward land despite a continuing number of distress calls from the migrant boats still out at sea.

On land, Doctors Without Borders’ MSF Prudence brought 649 people to shore, including four young children and several men who had suffered gunshot wounds at the hands of the traffickers in Libya. Of the 60 women, several had reported torture. Their ship will head back out for more rescues on Monday.

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The busy weekend comes on the heels of an investigation by a local Italian prosecutor into funding of the NGO charity ships with an eye to removing them from service. The NGOs have denied wrong doing, insisting that their purpose is to fill the vacuum created by “an absent Europe” that is seemingly leaving the migrants to sink or swim.