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Rescue group conducts search mission for capsized refugee boats

Spanish aid organization Proactiva suspects that over 200 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean sea. DW spoke with Laura Lanuza, the organization’s press spokeswoman, to find out more.

Rescue organization Proactiva Open Arms "specializes in surveillance and rescue missions of boats carrying people who need help in the Aegean and Mediterranean sea," according to its website.

On Thursday, members of Proactiva discovered bodies of migrants who had drowned after rubber boats or dinghies carrying them capsized. The boats that were discovered by the organization were located approximately 15 miles off the coast of Libya, a popular transit country for refugees coming from Africa.

DW: Could you give us a brief summary of how your organization came across this tragedy?  

Laura Lanuza: Yesterday morning at around six we saw a corpse floating in the water while our vessel was on patrol, so we started all of our alerts to see whether there were any more bodies or survivors. Around an hour later, another boat on patrol in the area found the next dinghy, which had nearly sunk, but there were no survivors around.

Minutes later, we spotted a second dinghy which was also in bad condition. As time went by, we recovered a total of five corpses - people who had drowned in the last 24 hours. Five of them were men between 16 and 25 years of age.

We found them around 15 miles from the coast of Libya. Then at around 11 o'clock or so, the Italian coast guard said there was another dinghy. So we started to look for a boat in distress. It took around 12 hours and we still couldn't find them. At the moment we are heading to Catania (an Italian city on the coast of Sicily), where we will unload the five bodies.

Mittelmeer Flüchtlingskatastrophe (Reuters/Y. Behrakis)

A Libyan fisherman speeds past the remains of a migrant raft, during Proactiva's search and rescue operation

The International Organization for Migration has said that more migrants tend to embark on the journey to Europe as the weather gets warmer, but the fact that 200 migrants have drowned is an unusually high number. What do you make of this claim?

Our organization has noticed that every time there is window of good weather or sea conditions, there have been more rescues. In January alone, our organization rescued a thousand people. The truth is that the flow of migrants hasn't gone down during the winter.

It's important to note that these boats sunk off the Libyan coast. What makes Libya such an important transit country for migrants to make their journey to Europe by sea?

Well, first of all, Europe's internal borders are closed and the only way for migrants to reach the continent is by sea. Libya now has three different governments, so it is quite a complex situation right now there. Smugglers that can take the migrants over the sea have become very powerful - it's a big business. Libya also has a large coast for migrants to set off from the Mediterranean.

We also know that these migrants travel with big rubber boats, in which many of them are packed together. Are the migrants able to take any possessions with them?

The migrants on these boats do not have any belongings, not even their shoes. The smuggler might give them one thing, a satellite phone number. This is how they could keep a GPS point and communicate with the Italian coast guard. However not all the dinghies have this.

There have also been other reports that migrants are now embarking by sea through other North African countries, namely Egypt. What do you make of this?

We know that Egypt has become a transit country, for example some months ago there was a shipwreck near the Egypt's coast where people had drowned. Other possibilities are still unclear. What we do know as of now is that the main point of departure for these migrants is the Libyan coast.

How does your organization coordinate with the Italian coast guard to help these migrants?

All organizations operating in the area have to go through the Italian coast guard. Any movement, or any interventions in a situation, are done with the permission of the Italian Coast Guard.       

This interview was conducted by Wesley Dockery

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