Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

Nearly 500 migrants stuck at sea searching for safe ports

Aid groups say returning rescued migrants to Libya is not an option as violence continues to drive migration across the Mediterranean

The Alan Kurdi rescued 78 people from two boats in difficulty off the Libyan coast over the weekend. AFP
The Alan Kurdi rescued 78 people from two boats in difficulty off the Libyan coast over the weekend. AFP

Nearly 500 migrants are stuck aboard search and rescue ships in the Mediterranean after aid groups said on Monday they had rejected offers to return to Libya but were denied safe ports in Europe.

More than 400 people, including many found suffering from hypothermia and dehydration, have been rescued by the Ocean Viking, a humanitarian ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

"With five night-time operations carried out in less than 72 hours, that's a total of 407 survivors who are now safely on board," MSF said on Twitter.

The rescuers pulled 82 of the migrants out of the water in a zone normally covered by the Maltese authorities, they added.

"As we approached, it was clear the people were highly stressed & panicking," MSF tweeted, quoting Catherine, one of the nurses on board the Ocean Viking.

"Having been at sea for 22 hours, many were suffering from hypothermia & dehydration. Others had been exposed to fuel, which can develop into burns on the skin," she added.

MSF’s coordinator on board the vessel said the group had refused an offer to land the migrants in Libya and were looking for other options.

Another 78 people were taken on board the rescue ship Alan Kurdi in two rescue operations.

Sea-Eye, the Germany-based rescue organisation which operates the boat, said on Sunday that the Alan Kurdi was headed for Italy after Malta refused them a safe port.

Since the summer of 2018, the European Union has tasked Libya's coastguard with coordinating search and rescue operations in a vast stretch of the Mediterranean beyond their territorial waters.

But the conflict there means that these operations are beyond them, says SOS Mediterranee.

"Despite the winter, despite the bad weather, and despite the very few boats dedicated to the rescue in the area, boats are still leaving Libya in numbers," Aloys Vimard, MSF's coordinator on board the Ocean Viking, told AFP.

"The survivors tell us about the deteriorating security situation in Libya where there is active conflict," MSF said.

An internationally brokered truce between the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and rival Libyan commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has failed to stop fighting in the country.

The Libyan capital's sole functioning airport came under renewed fire on Sunday and fresh fighting broke out hours after the UN mission there condemned ongoing violations of an arms embargo.

In 2019, the International Organisation of Migrants recorded 1,283 deaths in the Mediterranean, making it the deadliest route for migrants attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa to Italy.

Over the past five years, at least 19,164 migrants have died on the route.

Updated: January 28, 2020 03:06 AM

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