As dozens of African migrants crossed the Mediterranean on a flimsy white rubber dinghy, a small plane circling 300 meters above sea watched closely their attempt to reach Europe.
The twin-engine Seabird, which belongs to the German non-governmental organization Sea-Watch, has the task of documenting human rights violations against migrants at sea and forwarding emergencies to surrounding ships and authorities, which are increasingly ignoring their requests.
On that cloudy October afternoon, an approaching thunderstorm increased the dangers for the overcrowded boat. According to the United Nations Migration Agency, almost 23,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe since 2014.
“Nour 2, Nour 2, that’s Seabird aircraft, Seabird aircraft,” communicated the aircraft’s tactical coordinator, Eike Bretschneider, by radio to the only ship in the vicinity. The master of the Nour 2 agreed to change course and check the flimsy boat. But after seeing that the boat was flying a Libyan flag, the people refused to help, the captain answered on the crackling radio.
“They say they only have 20 liters of fuel left,” the captain, who did not identify himself by name, told the Seabird. “You want to continue your journey.”
The small boat’s destination was the Italian island of Lampedusa, where tourists sitting in sidewalk cafes drank Aperol Spritz without knowing what was unfolding on the Mediterranean Sea 60 nautical miles (111 kilometers) south of them.
Bretschneider, a 30-year-old social worker, made quick calculations and concluded that the migrants left Libya about 20 hours ago and had about 15 hours to go before they reached Lampedusa. That was if their boat didn’t fall apart or capsize along the way.
Despite the risks, many migrants and refugees say they would rather die trying to get to Europe than be sent back to Libya, where they are put in detention centers after disembarkation and are often relentlessly mistreated.
Bretschneider sent the coordinates of the dinghy to the air liaison officer based in Berlin, who then passed the position (within the Maltese search and rescue zone) on to both Malta and Italy. It didn’t surprise them that they didn’t get an answer.
As the fuel ran out, the Seabird had to leave the scene.
“We can only hope that the people will eventually reach the shore or be rescued by a European coast guard ship,” Bretschneider told AP on the way back.
The activists have got used to their emergency calls going unanswered.
Human rights groups and international law experts have denounced for years that European countries are increasingly ignoring their international obligations to rescue migrants at sea. Instead, they have outsourced rescue operations to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has a track record of ruthless interception and links to traffickers and militias.
“I’m sorry, we don’t speak to NGOs,” said a man who answered the phone at the Maltese Rescue and Coordination Center, a Sea-Watch member who inquired about a boat in distress last June. In a separate call to the Rescue and Coordination Center in Rome, another Sea-Watch member was told: “We have no information to report to you.”
The Maltese and Italian authorities did not respond to questions from AP.
Trying to get in touch with the Libyan Rescue and Coordination Center is an even bigger challenge. Often times, on the rare occasion that someone answers, the person on the other side of the line does not speak English.
According to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, more than 49,000 migrants have reached the Italian coast this year, almost twice as many as in the same period last year.
Although it is illegal for European ships to bring rescued migrants back to Libya on their own, intelligence from EU surveillance drones and aircraft has enabled the Libyan Coast Guard to significantly improve its ability to prevent migrants from reaching Europe. So far this year it has intercepted about half of those who tried to leave the country and brought more than 26,000 men, women and children back to Libya.
For several years Sea-Watch has relied on millions of euros from individual donations in order to expand its air monitoring capacities. It now has two small airplanes which, from a bird’s eye view, can find boats in distress much faster than ships.
From Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than Italy, planes can reach an emergency relatively quickly if its position is known. But if there are no precise coordinates, they sometimes have to fly a search pattern for hours and search the sea with the help of binoculars.
Even at low altitude, the search for a tiny boat in the vast Mediterranean can be a strain on the most experienced eyes. The crew of three to four volunteers reports every little point on the horizon that could potentially be people in need.
“Target at 10 o’clock,” warned the Seabird’s rear-seated photographer on a recent flight.
The pilot turned left to inspect it.
“Disregard fishing boat,” replied Bretschneider, the tactical coordinator.
In rough seas, breaking waves can play tricks and resemble wobbly boats for brief moments in the distance. Often the “targets” turn out to be nothing and the Seabird returns hours later without any new information.
But finding boats in distress is only the first challenge. Saving them is just as difficult, if not more difficult.
With no state rescue ships in place and NGOs increasingly preventing ships from leaving port, Sea-Watch often relies on the goodwill of the merchant ships that navigate the area. But many are also reluctant to interfere after several merchant ships got stuck at sea for days waiting for Italy or Malta to allow rescued migrants to disembark. Others have returned them to Libya in violation of maritime and refugee conventions.
This week a court in Naples found the captain of an Italian merchant ship guilty of returning 101 migrants to Libya in 2018.
Without government authority, the Seabird can only remind captains of their duty to rescue people in distress. This is how Bretschneider recently got an Italian supply ship to rescue 65 people from a drifting migrant boat just before the Libyan coast guard arrived.
On another mission a few days later, the Seabird returned from her flight without knowing what would happen to the people she had seen on the white rubber dinghy.
Bretschneider checked his phone over dinner that evening and hoped for good news. Across the Mediterranean, 17 bodies had washed up in western Libya, apparently from another boat.
The next day the Seabird started looking for the white rubber dinghy again, but in vain. On the way back they received a message from the country.
The white rubber dinghy had reached waters near Lampedusa and was picked up by the Italian coast guard. The people had made it.
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