Saving lives 1 day at a time
ON THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA, April 17, (AP): As usual, it started with a call on a satellite phone from Italian rescue officials in Rome. They were relaying a distress call they’d received from a migrant smuggling ship adrift somewhere off the coast of Libya. On board the Golfo Azurro, Guillermo Canardo was taking notes. “Two boats,” he said. “One hundred people in each one.” He paused, then asked the question that needed to be asked: “Are they (the migrants) still moving?” A fishing trawler-turned-exploration yacht-turned-rescue ship, the 30-year-old Golfo Azurro is now operated by Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish nonprofit dedicated to rescuing migrants before they are consumed by the unforgiving Mediterranean Sea. It works the SAR zone — the search-and-rescue zone — which starts 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast and goes 12 miles deeper into the sea’s unpredictable waters.
This is the last, deadliest section of the migrant highway known as “the Libyan route” that slices across the African continent. According to UNHCR, an average of 14 people died in the Mediterranean every day in 2016, the highest number ever recorded. Canardo, the head of rescue operations on the Golfo Azurro, spoke that April day to Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, which passed along the troubled vessels’ coordinates.
Half a dozen rescuers quickly put on wetsuits and loaded sacks of lifejackets onto two orange rubber rescue boats. Fernando Garfella, skipper of the lead rescue boat, confirmed the coordinates and sped toward the target. After 15 minutes, a dot appeared on the horizon. Most migrants on the Mediterranean are now trying to reach Italy. Those numbers have dramatically increased since the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement last year that allowed Greece to send new asylum-seekers back to Turkey. In exchange, the EU agreed to speed up visas for Turkish citizens and donate 6 billion euros ($6.4 billion) to help support the hundreds of thousands of refugees living on Turkish soil. Over the long Easter weekend, at least 8,300 migrants were rescued at sea, according to a UN refugee agency official, Carlotta Sami, who tweeted Monday that “rescuers worked incessantly for three days.” At least eight bodies were recovered.
With the Greek smuggling route largely closed off, the path of least resistance has drifted to Libya — a sprawling, lawless country with a huge coast and competing rebel and government factions. Migrants have flooded into Libya from across Africa, producing a bonanza for smugglers. The first call for help often comes on a satellite telephone directly from a smuggling boat. On that April day, rescuers found two jam-packed boats with 152 people — 66 in a rubber boat, 86 in a wooden boat — 56 nautical miles (103 kilometers) from the Libyan coast. Fede Gomez, an Argentine rescuer, told those on the inflatable boat in English to remain calm if they wanted to avoid a tragedy.
Boats have capsized previously — leading to dozens of drownings — when desperate migrants jumped into the water trying to be rescued first. The rubber boat had left Libya thirteen hours earlier, traveling overnight and drifting since its small engine broke down. It was truly a makeshift craft — a rubber floater glued to a wooden base and held together by screws as large as a hand. There was no food or drinkable water left, and nowhere near enough fuel to reach Italian soil. The migrants were told that Europe was only five hours north of Libya.
In fact, the closest point is Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island 160 nautical miles away, a boat journey that takes more than 32 hours in calm waters. This group was lucky enough to reach an offshore oil well platform, guided by its burning flame, and rescue workers linked up with them near it. Once everyone had been transferred to the Golfo Azurro, a rescuer destroyed one of the smuggling boats’ engines — the other was broken hours ago. That ensures that no “vultures” — the nickname for the local fishermen who scavenge the engines of smugglers’ boats — can sell them back again to more traffickers.