Aid group: Migrants 'prefer to die' than return to Libya

CATANIA, Italy - Migrants who were left in the Mediterranean Sea for over a day during a bureaucratic standoff were so afraid of being turned over to the Libyan coast guard that they were about to jump into the water because they "prefer to die," aid workers said Thursday.

The Aquarius rescue ship of the aid group SOS Mediterranee eventually docked Thursday in Catania, Sicily, with 105 people aboard. They had been rescued Sunday by a British-flagged sailboat, but were kept at sea after Italy insisted Britain approve their transfer to the bigger, sturdier Aquarius.

Britain argued it wasn't co-ordinating the rescue, and eventually Italy approved the transfer.

Matthew Carter, SOS Mediterranee communications officer, said the rescue showed "a growing trend of delays and confusion between the authorities and who is co-ordinating rescues and transfer operations."

Some of the migrants, who were kept on the deck of the sailboat during the standoff, suffered heatstroke and an 11-year-old boy vomited blood, he said.

It was the second time in as many months that Italy has delayed allowing rescued migrants to reach safety by insisting on bureaucratic formalities involving the flag nations of rescue ships. It appears to be the latest tactic of Italy's strategy to dissuade aid groups from operating in the Mediterranean so that the Libyans will take charge of rescues and bring migrants back.

The Italian coast guard says international norms require that the flag nations of ships request formal authorization for their ships to dock and offload — a requirement Italy hadn't enforced before its recent crackdown on migrant landings and its financial and logistical support for the Libyan coast guard.

Aloys Vimard, project co-ordinator for the Doctors Without Borders aid group who was on the Aquarius, said the threat of being returned to Libya was terrifying for migrants, because many had already been exposed to "high levels of violence, including torture or rapes."

"At one point, we had the Libyan coast guard patrolling around us and they were just scared. They were about to jump into the water because they tell us they would prefer to die than return to Libya," Vimard said.


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