EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected. An earlier version reported that the U.S. Navy ship picked up survivors as well as several corpses from a sinking boat off the coast of Libya, then returned the dead to the water in a burial at sea because of inadequate storage facilities. That is not the case. The dead were not recovered.
ROME—There is a perfect Italian word for the situation the American warship USNS Trenton finds itself in right now. Intrappolata. It means trapped, entangled and ensnared in a situation that is is going to prove very tricky to get out of.
On Tuesday, the Trenton, a Spearhead-class high-speed transport that is part of ongoing 6th Fleet military operations off the coast of Libya, came upon a migrant boat in distress and disintegrating. People were in the water. Several corpses were floating nearby. The Trenton called for help and, along with the German non-governmental organization Sea Watch whose ship was patrolling nearby, the American crew carried out the rescue of 40 African migrants and observed what appeared to be 12 people in the water who had died. The living are all on the American ship. The anonymous dead were left to the mercy of the elements.
A spokesperson for the U.S. 6th Fleet says that the rescue boats deployed apparently could not find the bodies that had been seen at first, but if they had, the ship would have had enough refrigerated space to store them.
“On June 12, 2018 USNS Trenton, in accordance with its obligations under international law, rendered assistance to mariners in distress that it encountered while conducting routine operations in the Mediterranean Sea,” the Sixth Fleet said in an earlier statement. “Forty people have been recovered and are being provided food, water, and medical care on board Trenton. U.S. authorities are coordinating with our international partners to determine their ultimate disposition.”
A better word than “coordinating” would be “negotiating,” because right now political and diplomatic confusion reigns over the lives of people trying to make the incredibly dangerous voyage from North Africa to southern Europe. Thousands die each year gambling they can make it across the Med one way or another. Many go to sea in hugely overcrowded rubber boats that have no prayer of traveling all the way to the shores of Italy. They — or the smugglers they have paid — are betting that they will be picked out of the water before they drown. And that’s a bet that many lose.
Even as the Trenton was pulling people out of the waters off Libya, a very different situation was developing off the coast of Italy aboard the Gibraltar-flagged NGO rescue ship Aquarius with 629 migrants and refugees aboard. After a standoff in which neither Malta nor Italy would let them disembark at their ports, the Italian Coast Guard finally gave the Aquarius instructions to transfer nearly 500 of its 629 passengers to Italian naval ships and head across the sea to Spain in a convoy.
The new Spanish government has declared its willingness to welcome them in the port of Valencia and give them a 15-day permit to stay while they apply for asylum. Any who don’t qualify are supposed to be repatriated back to where they came from.
The political wrangling puts the Trenton in a particularly problematic situation. The German-flagged NGO that helped with the rescue is worried that if it agrees to take the migrants off the Americans’ hands, it could end up in a standoff like the Aquarius.
The U.S. warship certainly doesn’t want to pull out of military exercises to bring the Africans all the way to Italy. It could hand them to the Libyan Coast Guard, but that’s not a “safe harbor” as mandated by maritime law. Or, since the Americans are the ones who rescued the migrants, they could send them to the United States. Under current circumstances, that seems unlikely.
In a game of political bluff and bluster played out on the waters where thousands upon thousands of people die each year, the human beings aboard these rescue vessels, the Trenton included, have become pawns for politicos, rarely seen by the public as anything more than dark silhouettes against the sun-glared waters of the Med. They are faceless and in more and more cases they are hopeless.
The International Rescue Committee, an 85-year-old global agency that was founded by Albert Einstein to help Germans suffering under Hitler and Italians suffering under Mussolini, has lately focused its attention on the plight of these migrants stuck in Libya by putting faces on the statistics. Now the IRC has presented interviews with a handful of migrants who escaped the terror of Libyan detention centers, and who were willing to talk. Their names are changed to protect them, but their stories are all too real.
A 22-year-old man from the Gambia talks about his treatment by human smugglers in Sabha, Libya when he and more than 150 others tried unsuccessfully to escape the horrific conditions there. The militia guards tried to find out who the ringleader was. “No one would tell them. Everyone kept quiet,” he says. “After a few hours, the guards brought a machine gun and they said, ‘If you don’t tell us, we will kill all of you.’ Three people stood up so the rest of us wouldn’t die. The first man they point the gun at, they just shoot him, kill the person. Then the second person, they beat him with five people. They beat the person, and the person die. The other person, they took him and we never see that person again. That is Sabha.”
A 20-year-old Nigerian man who made it across the desert into Libya in 2011, stayed there for a year, and tells of the treatment he received by a group called Asma boys. He says they are like the mafia, extorting money from migrants when they arrive in Libya to cross to Europe. He said after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi died and the government was destroyed in 2011, the Libyans had no other business but smuggling.
“The smugglers will tell you that when you go to Europe you will have too much good life, you will have everything that you want. They will take all your money, they will take everything you have and they will put you into the boat,” he says. “They are using this for their living now. They are using immigrants now to make money.”
The Nigerian says that as bad as it is for men, who are often beaten and tied up, it is worse for women. “If you are a woman they will do everything to you,” he says. “They will beat you, they will rape you, they will molest you. Many ladies got pregnant from them.”
The IRC is calling on European Union member states to work with the Libyan authorities to find alternatives to the horrific detention centers across Libya. “We believe that the only way to bring peace to Libya is through a political process,” Lucy Carrigan, a spokesperson and regional manager for Africa and Europe, told The Daily Beast. “With over 1.1 million people in need and over a thousand militias vying for territory, every effort must be made to find a peaceful resolution to this crisis.”
Each of the 629 men, women and children stuck on the Aquarius, the 40 now languishing on the American warship, and the more than 900 who were delivered to Sicily on Wednesday morning by the Italian Coast Guard have stories similar to those interviewed by IRC. The only difference is that they haven’t had a chance to tell anyone yet. And for many, survival not a triumph against the system. They remember their friends and family members killed or raped in front of them, they’ve seen their dreams lost forever in a nightmare that often doesn’t end when they get to Europe.
France and Italy are now in a diplomatic war of words about Italy closing its ports, and about how to go forward with Europe’s outdated migration policies that were forged long before the mass exodus of people started crossing the sea.
On Thursday, the Trenton got tired of waiting for the Italian Coast Guard central command to tell it what to do with the survivors and it left the area. The fate of the 40 survivors on board remains undetermined.
This week Spain is seen as a savior for taking in the people aboard the Aquarius, but only a year ago it was condemned because it used armed force to keep migrants off its shores. And Italy, which has taken in far more African migrants than any other European country, is now seen as the bad guy for saying, “No more.”
But none of that political posturing helps the human beings afloat on the Mediterranean. Some will make it to safety in Europe. Some will be returned to Africa. Many will die, pawns sacrificed in a global game.