Ten people were found dead in the lower deck of a severely overcrowded wooden boat off the coast of Libya, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has reported.
According to survivors, those who died on Tuesday suffocated after 13 hours on the cramped lower deck, where there had been a strong smell of fuel.
In a difficult operation, less than 30 nautical miles from Libyan shores, the MSF team onboard the charity’s chartered search and rescue vessel Geo Barents reached the boat carrying more than 100 asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe. Survivors told rescuers that there were people crammed on the lower deck who were unresponsive.
After 99 people, all showing signs of acute stress and trauma, were brought on board the Geo Barents, the rescue team found 10 dead bodies at the bottom of the boat.
“It took us almost two hours to retrieve them and to bring them on board, so they can have a dignified burial once arrived onshore,” said Fulvia Conte, MSF deputy search and rescue team leader on the Geo Barents. “It was horrific and infuriating at the same time. This is another tragedy at sea that could have been avoided.”
Abdoulaye, one of the last survivors to leave the boat, barely had the time to understand what had happened to his fellow travellers before the MSF rescuers took his arm and helped him into the rescue lifeboat.
“Let me see their bodies,” he told the team. “These are my brothers. We come from the same place, we went through Libya together. I need to tell their families they are dead. Please let me see them.”
Some had to identify the body of a younger brother or friend who had died in front of them a few hours earlier.
The volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline Alarm Phone accused the European authorities of ignoring the distress call: “We had raised the alarm, several hours before, but no one answered. We are fed up with the announcements of these deaths that could be avoided.”
Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator on the Geo Barents, said: “We are once more witnessing Europe’s unwillingness to provide the much needed dedicated and proactive search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean.”
In less than 24 hours, Geo Barents performed three rescues in the Maltese and Libyan search and rescue zones, bringing 186 people safely on board, including the survivors from the boat where 10 died. Those rescued were from Guinea, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Somalia and Syria, and included several children, the youngest only 10 months old.
With the attention of the European authorities focused on the humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, Geo Barents, with nearly 200 asylum seekers and 10 dead bodies, must urgently find a place of safety to disembark.
An estimated 1,225 people have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean so far this year. Since 2014, 22,825 people have gone missing or died on this route.
“It has become the deadliest migration route, and it is shameful,” Willemen said.