Saved from death at sea but denied a place to land by Italy, the 629 migrants rescued by the charity ship Aquarius have endured an additional 700 nautical mile-trip to Spain that one of the rescuers blamed on “idiotic” politics.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League party, who denied the Aquarius a safe harbour, said on Thursday the migrants had no right “to decide where to start and end their cruise”.
Having spent 20 hours in overcrowded rubber dinghies before being rescued after leaving the coast of Libya, and then a week on the Aquarius with an uncertain future, 4-metre (13 ft) waves added to the migrants’ misery overnight, Max Avis, the deputy search-and-rescue chief on the ship, told Reuters.
“The nurse was giving a vomit bag to a woman as she was breastfeeding her baby,” Avis said.
“We have the most vulnerable of the vulnerable on the ship right now, and instead of being taken care of and supported, they’re being used … for some idiotic exercise of political influence.”
The Aquarius incident has given Italy’s new government a chance to assert its anti-migration credentials and has drawn both criticism and support from neighbouring countries in the European Union, which has failed to find an EU-wide solution to the challenge of huge numbers of people fleeing to Europe.
There are 51 women and 10 children among the migrants, most of whom sleep on deck. Apart from seasickness, many have burns from a mix of fuel and seawater, and medics on the Aquarius treated a man whose finger was partially amputated in Libya.
One of the rubber boats broke apart in the middle of the night-time rescue, Avis said. It was discovered only on Friday that two young men were missing, probably drowned. Many others had to be resuscitated after being pulled from the sea.
“We pulled out people who had drowned. Literally, they were sitting like a foetus underwater and we just grabbed them and pulled them in. The medic was doing resuscitations and we just threw more and more people on top of the people he was resuscitating … This went on for six hours,” Avis said.
“We ran out of life-jackets. We started taking life-jackets off of people as they climbed up (into the rescue boat) and throwing them to people falling into the water.”
To transport all 629 people to Spain safely, Italy is using two of its vessels in a convoy with the Aquarius, run by a Franco-German charity, which has 106 on board. The migrants are due to disembark in the port of Valencia on Sunday, eight days after being rescued and nine after setting out from Libya.
Meanwhile, on Friday, Italy’s coastguard was recovering another 500 migrants, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said.
“No one can say we are shrugging off our duties, or that we are racist and xenophobic,” Toninelli said in a statement. “Italy has always been and remains on the front line when it comes to saving lives at sea.”