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No letup in migrant boat exodus

July 26, 2019

Migrants on seven boats are crossing Mediterranean waters to escape Libya, according to airborne Sea-Watch activists. Italy's interior minister is blocking entry to an Italian coast guard ship carrying rescued migrants.

Italian coast guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Mirabelli

Far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has ordered that coast guard ship Bruno Gregoretti should not enter an Italian port until other EU countries agree to take in the 140 migrants on board, news agency ANSA has reported.

Italy's coast guard said those on board comprised two groups rescued on Wednesday by Tunisian and Italian fishing boats and then transferred to the Bruno Gregoretti.

Read more: Migrants feared dead off Libya coast

Salvini's orders follow recent Italian clampdowns on charity rescue boats and his snubbing of a Paris meeting last Monday, where, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, 14 nations agreed on a tentative refugee redistribution plan.

Progress on migrant pathways urged

On Friday, UNHCR refugee agency head Filippo Grandi urged Europe to make progress on creating "safe pathways out of Libya" for migrants fleeing notorious detention centers in the war-torn African nation.

Restoring rescue missions at sea and safe pathways "must happen now before it is too late for many more desperate people," Grandi said.

His call followed multiple boat capsizes Thursday in which at least 115 people, including women and children, drowned or died of hypothermia off the Libyan town of Khoms, 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Tripoli.

The Tajoura migrant shelter
The Tajoura migrant shelter was the scene of an airstrike in early JulyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/UGC

Among 130 survivors, said Libyan officials, a dozen had been taken to hospital and the rest to detention centers, including Tajoura, the scene of an airstrike on July 3.

Returns to Tajoura by Libyan forces put "intentionally the life [sic] of these people at risk," tweeted Vincent Cochetel, a refugee agency special envoy.

Libya's Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency said up to 350 migrants, mainly nationals from Eritrea and Sudan, had been on board the capsized boats.

Grandi said Thursday's fatalities came on top of 669 migrant deaths reported on the Mediterranean Sea so far in 2019.

Airborne observers

Sea-Watch, a Berlin-based charity, said its observers flying over the Mediterranean had counted seven migrant boats on open water on Friday.

"The people [migrants] are fleeing simply because they can no longer endure the conditions in Libya," said Sea-Watch spokesman Oliver Kulikowski. 

Due to arrive off Libya on Tuesday is a replacement rescue vessel Alan Kurdi, operated by Sea-Eye, a charity based in Regensburg in southern Germany.

Also underway is the Ocean Viking, a new ship run as a joint venture by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee.

Practical mechanism, not criminalization

German Protestant EKD church council chairman Heinrich Bedford-Strohm said Europe must cease criminalizing and hindering sea rescues.

Dominik Bartsch, the UNHCR's representative in Germany, told the RND newspaper and online network that a European distribution mechanism must clearly define how shipwrecked people were taken in, where their asylum claims will be processed and how those not needing protection should be returned home.

"Once the nations for the first time prove that such as mechanism can function, then it need not come to such terrible accidents [at sea]," said Bartsch.

ipj/jm (epd, dpa, AP, AFP, KNA)

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