After five rescues in less than two days, almost 400 migrants aboard the Geo Barents search and rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean, operated by Medicines sans frontiers (MSF), have been given safe shelter in Palermo, Italy.
Among the 367 people are 172 minors, with 134 of them unaccompanied. MSF called on Italy to provide a safe harbor on Tuesday ahead of expected dangerous weather conditions, and received permission on Wednesday.
MSF rescued the migrants from wooden boats after receiving alerts that they say authorities from European countries ignored, even though they were much closer to the people in need.
“Leaving people to drift at sea for days is unacceptable,” the organisation said in a press release.
“Although authorities were aware of the situation, no one had responded or intervened. It took our team nine hours to reach the boat, while neither authorities nor other nearby vessels provided assistance.”
Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator aboard the Geo Barents, said the rescues were done amid very harsh weather conditions, which made it challenging.
“This is another clear example of how nearby coastal states are refusing to take any responsibility for people in distress at sea. The boat had been in dangerous waters for three days, with 100 people on board, including 42 children,” Willemen said.
“Once again, we are witnessing how European migration control policies are endangering the lives of thousands of people, by having no proactive search and rescue capacity at sea and failing to provide a response to all distress calls. It’s unacceptable that NGOs are left to fill the deadly gap.”
#GeoBarents has a port for disembarkation. There are no words to express the joy and relief on board. We’re heading to Palermo (Italy) now to bring the 367 survivors to safety ashore. pic.twitter.com/58GF80Y85o
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) October 27, 2021
Many of the survivors taken on board were suffering from hypothermia after prolonged exposure to the elements or falling in the water, MSF said. Survivors also faced seasickness, dehydration, loss of appetite and some of them suffered from fuel inhalation.
MSF is adamant that the migrants coming from Libya not be returned to that country, saying they witnessed the Libyan Coast Guard approaching a rubber boat full of migrants at high speed, maneuvering dangerously around it.
On a previous day, they say they witnessed migrants and refugees on board a Libyan Coast Guard vessel next to an empty boat that had been set on fire.
“European States and institutions must immediately suspend their political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard and stop the system of forced returns to Libya. Libya is not a safe place,” said Willemen.
“The past couple of days have illustrated the humanitarian catastrophe taking place at the southern border of Europe. With only humanitarian vessels monitoring the world’s deadliest migration route, the need for more search and rescue capacity is desperately needed.”