IOM Staff in Tunisia, Italy Deploy to Aid Mediterranean Migrants, Amid Reports of More Deaths at Sea
Italy - As the human smuggling season picks up this month, IOM staffers are being summoned to various Mediterranean landing spots after over a thousand migrants were put to sea by Libyan smuggling gangs earlier this week.
IOM Italy reports that 941 migrants were rescued on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Channel of Sicily. There is still no detailed breakdown on their nationalities, although most of the survivors appear to be sub Saharan Africans and Eritreans, as well as Syrians and Palestinians.
The migrants were rescued from several rubber dinghies and wooden fishing boats and were brought to the Sicilian ports of Porto Empedocle, Augusta and Pozzallo. Rescuers included the Italian Coast Guard, an Italian Navy ship (operating in the framework of European Union’s Triton operation) and a commercial ship, according to IOM Italy’s Flavio Di Giacomo.
IOM staff in Augusta report that according to the migrants, there were casualties. The migrants involved in one shipwreck said they were approximately 150 passengers travelling together on a wooden boat that suddenly capsized, shortly before the arrival of rescuers. The migrants all fell into the water. Most were rescued, but 10 bodies were recovered and many others are still missing.
“The news of another death toll confirms once again how the journeys to reach Europe by sea are extremely dangerous,” said Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordinating Office for the Mediterranean.
"Almost a thousand arrivals in only one day is of great concern, especially at this time of year. We fear that, given the situation in Libya, this trend will continue. Accounts provided to IOM by the migrants who reached Italy confirm the dangers of staying in the country and the increasing violence and cruelty of the criminals who organize the crossings,” he added.
In Zarzis, Tunisia, on Wednesday, IOM responded following the rescue of 86 African migrants at sea late Tuesday night.
"The boat was rescued by the Tunisian navy. Among the rescued there are five women, one of whom is pregnant. There are also at least five unaccompanied minors," said Lorena Lando, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Tunisia. “IOM is working with the Tunisian Red Crescent and UNHCR to help the Tunisian authorities provide the migrants with all necessary humanitarian assistance,” she added.
“Shelter for rescued migrants remains the biggest challenge here. The authorities do not have any appropriate building to house them. We are very concerned as we expect more boats in distress to be rescued in the coming days, weeks, months and the lack of resources will make humanitarian assistance very challenging,” she noted.
The survivors explained they sailed from Zwara, Libya, hoping to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. They said they used a satellite telephone the smugglers gave them when they left. Their craft left when seas were calm, survivors explained, but began to take on water and face growing swells their second day on the water.
“We saw so many ships, and we were waving and calling for help,” recalled Cyril Musa, 21, a Nigerian from the city of Kano. Many said they believed the boat that came for them was the same one – an Italian vessel – they had reached by phone. Learning they had been brought back to Africa instead of Lampedusa, many were in despair, demanding to call family members left behind in Libya.
The survivors included 17 Somalis, who were taken into the care of UNHCR. The remaining 69 men and women – 42 from Nigeria, the rest from Senegal, Mali, Ghana, and The Gambia – were given shelter in the nearby town of Medenine. By noon each had received food, a hygiene kit and a blanket. Many were given new clothes to replace soaked jeans and sweaters left in the morning sun to dry. Some had lost travel documents and, in some case, their shoes, while at sea.
IOM staffers recorded the name and nationality of each survivor for assistance in voluntary return, if that is their choice. “If they don’t want to go back they will stay here,” said Dr. Mongi Slim, the local representative of the Tunisian Red Crescent. He added: “I think some will go back to Libya, to try again.”
Some Nigerians, especially Christians from the Kano region, said they had fled Boko Haram attacks at home, and would request asylum, although most declared they still hoped to make an asylum claim in Italy, not Tunisia.
Many of the migrants who spoke with members of IOM’s team in Zarzis explained that, with violence rising across Libya, it is no longer safe for Africans to remain in the cities, where many previously found work in construction or cleaning homes. “In Libya there is no free movement. They don’t want to see black people like us,” said Osas Bomosah, 28, a Nigerian who spent five years in Libya.
Others spoke of rampaging gangs of robbers, who raided African homes, kicking in doors and demanding cash. “They look for black people,” said Alex Omomuoa of Kano, Nigeria, who said he worked as a plasterer in Zwara, Libya. He was referring to what Africans call “Hamsa Boys” or local street gangs. He said summoning the police for protection is not an option for undocumented migrants, who risk imprisonment by the Libyan authorities.
Omomuoa, 31, was joined by a younger brother, Mansha, 20, who left Kano for Libya in late February. Both men intended to reach Europe via Italy at a cost of 1000 Libyan dinars (EUR 450) each.
Other survivors confirmed that this was the same amount they were charged to join the voyage that left Zwara before dawn on Monday. Their craft was abandoned at sea and is believed to have foundered.
The rising tide of African migrants leaving Libya reflect not only the growing dangers inside Libya, but also what appears to be a calculation by human smuggling gangs throughout West Africa that Libya, with its proximity to Italy’s Lampedusa island, remains the best route to Europe for undocumented migrants.
“In January and February 2014, there were approximately 5,500 arrivals by sea. This year, as of March 5, there were more than 8,800. We attribute this increase to the serious international crises and instability,” observes Soda.
Of over 8,000 arrivals by sea in 2015’s first two months, nearly 1,000 came from Senegal and the Gambia – both countries not previously identified with the smuggling industry in Libya.
In Tunisia, Senegalese consular official Ousmane Fall told IOM he has seen an increase of Senegalese migrants using Tunis as an airbridge to Libya. They fly into the Tunisian capital on one of three weekly flights, then travel to Libya to find smugglers to send them to Europe. He said most of this new wave of migrants comes from remote rural districts near Senegal’s border with Mali.
“These people sell everything to come. Mostly cows if they are from the south, or small businesses if they are from the center of the country. If they are sent back it is a catastrophe for them. They have nothing to go back to,” he added.
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