Rescued migrant families describe sea capsize ordeal

Survivors of capsize incident say vessel was already sinking before LÉ Niamh arrived

Footage taken from the Mediterranean Sea shows the rescue operation to save migrants from a capsized wooden boat. Video: Médecins Sans Frontières


Two families plucked from the Mediterranean by the crew of the Naval Service patrol ship LÉ Niamh 10 days ago have described the intense relief at being rescued and said they believe their vessel was already sinking before it capsized.

One of the women involved, who was five months pregnant, has also been informed the child she is carrying has survived the ordeal.

In testimonies provided by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Syrian and Palestinian families recounted the terrifying ordeal they endured after they left the Libyan coast in a fishing boat packed with between 600 and 700 people.

This was over 12 times the number it could safely carry.

Panic on board

People had already begun to panic on board some time before the LÉ Niamh reached the vessel, as the engine room had been flooding, according to their testimonies.

The traffickers on board had called contacts in Libya to say they were returning to shore but had been ordered to continue to Italy, according to other survivors.

Syrian couple Mohammed and Alea, who cannot give their full names due to fears of repercussions, were among over 370 survivors.

Along with Syrians, there were 150 Bangladeshis along with sub-Saharan Africans and Eritreans on board, with estimates that up to 250 were crammed into the hold. Those who could afford to pay more were on deck.

The Syrian couple described to MSF how they had initially fled to Libya due to the conflict in their home country.

However, Alea was concerned about her pregnancy and couldn’t get access to healthcare in Libya as she is not of Libyan nationality.

Neither she nor her husband could afford private treatment, and she had not felt her baby moving for almost a week before they put to sea.

“I was inside the ship when it started sinking,”she said.

Her husband Mohammed had dived down and pulled his wife to the surface, she said.

“I was sure that was the end of me. He saved my life,” Alea said.

A 17-year-old family friend from Damascus, named Dana, who had fled Syria with her 65-year-old father, was also rescued.

She was able to translate questions put to Alea by a midwife on board the MSF rescue vessel, Dignity 1. To Alea’s intense relief, her baby’s heartbeat was detected in the ship’s hospital.

Palestinian couple Mohammed (35) and Diana, who had been travelling with their one-year-old daughter Azeelin, believe they were “seconds away” from losing their child.

“The boat was having problems after we left Libya, and we had to get rid of the water in the engine room,”they said.

“ Afterwards things seemed to go better, and the sea was calm. Then, suddenly, the boat started moving and rocking and we realised we were sinking,”they said.

“I can swim, but she can’t… and how could I grab her from the water when all the other people were trying to stay afloat…?” Mohammed said, recalling his reaction when the boat capsized.

The couple and their daughter were transferred by the LÉ Niamh crew to the MSF vessel, as Diana is on dialysis for her kidneys and required urgent medical attention.

‘People abused us’

The couple said they were “treated like a worse kind of humans in Libya and people abused us”, and this influenced their decision to risk their lives on the sea passage.

MSF director in Ireland Jane-Ann McKenna said that its organisation had now rescued some 15 per cent of all migrants this year in the Mediterranean, and more resources were required both at sea and on shore.

“We hear about drowning, but people are also dying from asphyxiation in holds and from dehydration,”she said.

Most of the “active patrolling” close to Libyan territorial waters is being carried out by Ireland’s Naval Service and the Italian Coastguard and Navy, along with MSF’s three vessels, and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) ship funded by a Maltese business couple.

Other vessels which are not actively patrolling, but will effect rescue if required, are deployed as surveillance on the EU’s Triton mission as part of the EU Frontex border control mandate.

The Frontex budget is €115 million this year, compared to just over €10 million for supporting reception of asylum seekers.

Ms McKenna noted that Italian reception centres were often overcrowded, while Greece has virtually no facilities at all.

The loss of over 200 migrants close to the Libyan coast on August 5th was the worst incident on the Mediterranean since over 800 died after their boat sank.

Five alleged people smugglers from Algeria, Tunisia and Libya arrested in connection with the sinking have been charged with murder and human trafficking.

Attacked with knives

Italian police said the migrants travelling in the hold were attacked with sticks and knives and forced to remain inside after the vessel began taking on water just outside Libyan territorial waters. Other migrants were also forced to prevent them from leaving the hold.

Some 367 of the survivors were taken last week to the Sicilian port of Palermo by the LÉ Niamh, along with 25 bodies of victims including children.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that almost a quarter of a million migrants and asylum seekers have reached Europe by sea so far this year, and a further 2,300 have died.

Earlier this week, the LÉ Niamh rescued 125 people on an overloaded inflatable vessel about 115km northwest of Tripoli, and took another 375 people from the Italian coastguard vessel Mimbelli.

Some 50 people were reported missing on August 12th when an inflatable began deflating some 40km off the Libyan coast. Up to 50 survivors were rescued by the Italian Navy.