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Thousands of Migrants Rescued Off Italian Coast as Situation in Libya Deteriorates

Instability in Libya is forcing desperate migrants to place their lives in the hands of unreliable and often violent smugglers, and prompting civilian groups to respond to the dangers they face.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 16 2015, 8:25pm

Photo via AP/Francesco Malavolta

Italy's coast guard has rescued some 2,164 migrants whose lives were in peril between the Italian island of Lampedusa and the Libyan coast over the weekend. According to the Italian Transport Ministry, the rescuers subsequently encountered four smugglers armed with Kalashnikovs traveling by speedboat who forced them to return one of the 12 ships that had been emptied of migrants.

Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi called the episode "another terrible development in the horrendous trafficking of men, women, and children in the Mediterranean."

Bad weather compounded the fact that the traffickers had not provided enough fuel for the boats to make the full trip, according to Amnesty International. Some of those attempting the journey later died of hypothermia. Last week, more than 300 migrants died after their boats came into trouble in the same area. 

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has repeatedly appealed for international help to deal with migrants, and reiterated his plea in remarks to RAI TV on Saturday. "The problems cannot all be left to us because we are the first, the closest, the people who pick up the boats," he said.

Italy has also called on the United Nations to intervene in Libya, where violence appears to be intensifying, prompting an increasing number of migrants to attempt to flee the country. The country is split between two rival governments, with various armed militias and Islamic State-affiliated militants also fighting to fill the vacuum of central authority. A five-minute video emerged on Sunday that appeared to show jihadists murdering 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya. The Egyptian military retaliated within hours of the video's release, according to Libyan officials, launching strikes on the militant-held city of Derma.

Italy's Mediterranean Mass Grave: Europe or die. Watch the documentary here.

In a statement, the United States government said that the beheadings portrayed in the video were a demonstration that the Islamic State's "barbarity knows no bounds," adding that "this heinous act once again underscores the urgent need for a political resolution to the conflict in Libya, the continuation of which only benefits terrorist groups."

The deteriorating situation in Libya led Italy to close its embassy on Sunday. 

Instability in Libya is forcing desperate migrants to place their lives in the hands of unreliable and often violent smugglers. Matteo de Bellis, an Italy campaigner for Amnesty International who just returned from interviewing some of the survivors of last week's disasters at Lampedusa Island, told VICE News that many of them were still visibly traumatized.

He also pointed out that every European Union member has at some point withdrawn citizens and diplomats from Libya, which he thought seemed somewhat hypocritical when one considers the barriers that exist for locals to do the same.

"Opening safe, legal channels for asylum seekers and others who need protection is a means to combat smuggling, because if you combat the market you reduce the number of people who need the service of the smugglers," he said. "Therefore you allow people to leave the country safely without putting their lives in the hands of criminals."

African migrants are dying while trying to sneak into Europe. Read more here.

"Europe's response to this is basically insufficient because Europe has a responsibility to intervene," he added. "What we are witnessing this moment is partly also the responsibility of Europe and a consequence of the policies of the European Union member states."

De Bellis also said that he has found that traffickers practically always carry weapons, which they use to threaten and abuse asylum seekers.

"It's no surprise to us that they are using weapons," he said, noting that he had never heard of them threatening members of the coast guard before. But de Bellis said he was unsurprised that a group of smugglers would try to get their boat back so that they could use it again.

With so many people risking and losing their lives to escape to Europe, the consistently shocking scale of the tragedies has encouraged some individuals to launch their own operations.

Martin Xuereb, former commander of the armed forces of Malta, is now in charge of heading the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a private initiative that seeks to safe migrants lives at sea. He told VICE News that he feels it is the duty of "civil society" to help migrants.

"We think that saving lives is not solely the responsibility of the coastal state or the EU," he remarked. "When someone dies at sea in those conditions, we think there should be a collective responsibility to do something about it."

Migrants are struggling to survive the frozen hell of refugee camps in Calais, France. Read more here.

MOAS operated for 60 days last year, during which Xuereb estimates they rescued 3,000 migrants. This year, they plan on being active between May and October. His operation works in direct contact with the rescue coordination centers, he noted, who tell them when boats are located and also direct them where to bring rescued migrants.

When asked whether he felt that private initiatives might encourage the EU to shirk its responsibility to help migrants, Xuereb replied that he thinks that MOAS's approach is justified by the imminent and consistent nature of the disasters.

"This is a crisis situation, and in a crisis situation you need to respond in a particular way," he said. "Over the past 10 years or so, I think 25,000 people have died at sea. For many people that is just a number, that is just a statistic, but when you're out there and you take people on board and you talk to them, these people are no longer a statistic. I think we need to try as much as possible to see the human aspect of this tragedy."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd