While not a new phenomenon, the Irish navy deployed in the Mediterranean on migrant search and rescue missions are noticing an increase in vessels attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean from Libya. The majority of their human ‘cargo’ is from central Africa.
On 29 August, the Irish Navy ship – LÉ James Joyce – saved 771 migrants from several flimsy vessels, surpassing previous records for a single day rescue mission. The migrants totalled 454 men, 138 women and 25 children. This brings the total rescued by the crew of LÉ James Joyce to over 11,000 souls. Details of the rescue mission were reported in the Irish Examiner on 30 August 2016 and can be read by clicking here.
It is a worrying development and supports a report published on 29 August 2016 by the IRIN news agency entitled ‘Troubled waters.’
The IRIN report quotes 21-year-old ‘Ali’ from Ghana, where the SMAs have had a presence since 1880 and currently has 17 missionaries, including two Irish priests.
Ali is part of a growing group of young men and women, some with children, who are leaving central and sub-Saharan Africa in search of a more promising future. Many are making their way to Libya, knowing that it is the preferred departure coast by Africans for various reasons, including cost. The primary and most worrying obstacle is that the route is longer and, therefore, more precarious. Statistics from the Missing Migrants Project clearly establish the Libyan route to be an exercise in Russian roulette in comparison to routes taken from the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.
Ali spoke to an IRIN reporter, shortly after disembarking from a search-and-rescue vessel in Catania, Sicily. “”I was very scared in the sea,” he told IRIN, “the boat was overcrowded. I could barely move. I was afraid of dying, but even more afraid of being caught by the Libyan police.”
“The traffickers tell you when you get in the boat that in three hours you’ll be arriving in Italy,” Ali said. However, having spent the night drifting at sea, they discovered after being rescued they were just 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
Ali survived, but three of his friends who attempted the journey before him did not. According to the International Organisation for Migration, some 2,726 migrants have lost their lives in this stretch of the Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy so far this year.
The IRIN report is disturbing on a number of fronts. It states that in addition to more boats being launched simultaneously from Libya, but they are also being packed with more migrants. Quoting the director of a Maltese-based NGO, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, Peter Sweetnam, the article states: “They’ve gone up from 100 [people] on the rubber boats to 150 or 160. On the wooden boats, from around 450 to 550 [before], we’re now seeing 550 to 800.” Sweetnam adds: “People aren’t normally wearing life jackets and the rubber boats often start to deflate when there are so many people on them”.
Despite the risks, the demand for smugglers’ services is high, in part, IRIN says because many people are so eager to escape the chaos in Libya.
The majority of migrants who set off from Libya are West Africans like Ali, who came to Libya in search of work. Ali told IRIN that during 10 months there, he said he endured torture, imprisonment and being sold by traffickers.
“In Libya, you can be killed at any second. Everybody has a gun. I just wanted to go out from there,” Ali said.
You can read the full IRIN report here