AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK—During grueling rescue operations yesterday in the central Mediterranean, a total of 588 people were saved from distressed boats, and an unknown number of people are missing and presumed drowned after their boat capsized, according to staff on the Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated by the organizations Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE.
"The situation suddenly turned into a nightmare when one of three rubber boats overloaded with men, women, and young children collapsed and dozens of people fell into the sea," said Seif Khirfan, an MSF medical doctor on the Aquarius. "Our teams launched all available flotation devices, distributed life jackets, and pulled people from the water. We were able to revive a man in cardiac arrest who was then medically evacuated by helicopter to Italy. Although no bodies were recovered, we witnessed people submerged under the water."
Due to the worsening conditions on the Mediterranean as the season grows colder, there were multiple cases of mild to moderate hypothermia among those rescued. The medical team also treated people for injuries they had suffered while inside Libya, where refugees and migrants are exposed to alarming levels of violence and exploitation.
"One man had an open fracture and dislocation of his left ankle which was one month old," Dr. Khirfan said. "He told me he sustained the injury trying to escape gunfire in Libya. Another man had his arm broken a week earlier while arbitrarily detained in Libya."
The vast majority of people rescued in the Mediterranean by MSF have traveled through Libya, and they tell of widespread abuse at the hands of smugglers, armed groups, and militias. The abuses reported include being subjected to violence (including sexual violence), arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, financial exploitation, and forced labor.
"People do not undertake this journey lightly," said Luca Salerno, MSF's coordinator on the Aquarius. "People do not risk their own lives and the lives of their children if there are easier options available to them."
MSF urges governments to ensure safe and legal channels for people seeking asylum.
"The European Union and individual member states need to take urgent action to provide safe and legal channels for people to seek asylum, create legal migration pathways, and make wider use of legal entry schemes so that desperate people are not forced to risk their lives on the Mediterranean," Salerno said.