ABOARD THE ASTRAL, Italy | AFP |
The horror, terror and joy felt during perilous rescues of migrant boats have been captured in powerful new images published Wednesday, as the latest deadly episode in the Mediterranean fuelled calls for Europe to change tack on the crisis.
— Aris Messinis (@ArisMessinis) October 5, 2016
— Aris Messinis (@ArisMessinis) October 3, 2016
AFP photographer Aris Messinis was on board NGO boat The Astral as it battled to help a number of overcrowded rubber dinghies and a larger wooden vessel found in distress off the coast of Libya in a frantic operation that lasted from dawn until after dusk on Tuesday.
Hundreds of mainly African migrants were hauled to safety but dozens died agonising deaths from suffocation as a result of either toxic fumes or the panicked crush of too many bodies: 29 of them on one of the dinghies.
Messinis said a final count on Wednesday put the death toll at 32 and his photographs capture the extreme range of emotions produced by the drama.
Among the most striking is the hauntingly poignant respect shown by the survivors as they tiptoe over lifeless bodies on their own way to safety.
In the water, an African man clings desperately to a float thrown in by the rescuers and stretches his leg out as if he were trying to help a fellow passenger floundering helplessly a yard (metre) away from him. Or could he have been seeking to push him away?
‘Policies not working’
Other images reveal that there were many small children on board the boats; one is crying, perhaps sensing the prevailing sense of fear, others seem totally carefree, oblivious to the panic, including one hoisted above the crush of the crowd.
“There must have been about 1,000 people on board the (larger wooden) boat, spread over three levels,” Messinis said.
“I went onboard and there was total panic, there were people jumping into the water, people trying to get out (from below deck).”
William Lacy Swing, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 3,500 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year showed Europe needed to do something different.
“That is more than all of last year and last year was more than 2014, so clearly our policies are not working as they should be or you wouldn’t have that many people who are dying,” he told AFP.
Italy’s coastguard said it coordinated 33 different rescue operations on Tuesday and that 4,655 people had been saved, taking the total recovered alive to more than 10,000 in two days.
Tuesday’s drama underlined how easily the life-saving capacities of the multinational search and rescue operation off Libya can become critically stretched.
The Astral, which is operated by Spanish NGO ProActiva Open Arms, was on its own for hours after it first came across the stricken boats.
A relatively small converted yacht, it could not risk getting too close to any of the distressed vessels for fear that it could be capsized by the panicked migrants all trying to board it at once.
It was not until midday that an Italian navy vessel arrived to help. By then it may already have been too late for some of the victims, and it was after 10 pm when the operation was finally wrapped up.
Italy’s coastguard and the charity MSF (Doctors without Borders) reported Wednesday that four pregnant women who were among the rescued had given birth on their way to Italian ports.
The number of pregnant women boarding migrant boats in Libya has increased significantly this year and it is not uncommon for them to go into labour as soon as they reach the safety of a rescue boat.
The 10,600 new arrivals will raise to more than 140,000 the total number of migrants or refugees to have landed in Italy since the start of this year.
The numbers are in line with the previous two years but Italy is now having to register and accommodate a bigger proportion of them under pressure from its EU partners, putting immense strain on its overcrowded reception centres and government coffers.