IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean reported Monday (6 November) on operations that saved over 2,560 migrants in just four days. Those same operations resulted in 34 recovered bodies and an estimated 50 more missing at sea, at the very least.
IOM, the UN Migration Agency, reports that 154,609 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea in 2017 through 5 November, with about 75 per cent arriving in Italy and the remainder arriving in Greece, Cyprus and Spain. This compares with 337,773 arrivals across the region through the same period last year.
“This is the outcome of one of the toughest weeks that rescue workers in the central Mediterranean route have experienced in the past for four months up to Monday,” said IOM Rome spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo.
The overall majority of migrants rescued during these days were West African nationals, but there were also some other nationalities: Bangladeshis, Eritreans, Egyptians, Sudanese, Moroccans, Syrians and Libyans. IOM staff also met an 89-year-old Syrian man, rescued at sea and brought to Taranto by the German ship “Mecklenburg”, and a Nigerian girl who gave birth on board the Spanish Navy Ship “Cantabria,” soon after being rescued.
The most dramatic instance came Sunday morning, when the Spanish Navy’s “Cantabria” – operating under the EunavforMed’s Operation Sophia – brought to Salerno (Campania) the remains of dozens of women, along with 402 migrants rescued in four different operations.
Faced with the remains of only women and girls, the prefect of Salerno decided to open an investigation to clarify the circumstances of these deaths, not excluding the possibility of it being a case of homicide. Autopsies will determine the women’s actual causes of death. From the earliest information gathered during landing, IOM has learned that the bodies were recovered in two distinct operations.
On Friday (3 November), the “Cantabria” rescued a sunken rubber dinghy, saving 64 people and recovering the bodies of 23 Nigerian girls. It is estimated that there were about 140 people on board, and – if this proves to have been the case – then the true number of those still missing would be close to 50. On the sunken vessel, there were several very young Nigerian girls.
During another operation, the “Bergamini” ship of the Italian Navy retrieved corpses of three women on an inflatable boat that was transporting some 139 migrants. These were transferred to the “Cantabria”.
Just days earlier, at least eight bodies were found by the Italian Coast Guard on a rubber dinghy with 150 people aboard.
“This tragedy affects a group of people particularly at-risk.” said Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean. “It is very likely that these girls were, in fact, victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. A recent IOM report has estimated that 80 per cent of Nigerian girls arriving in Italy by sea may be victims of trafficking.”
Soda added, “We’ve observed an alarming, notable increase in the number of Nigerian women and girls arriving in Italy over the last three years, from 1,500 in 2014, to over 11,000 in 2016. The most disturbing trend is that these women are younger and often under the age of 18. IOM is present at the landing points in Italy where we offer specific assistance to victims of trafficking after informing them about the risks they are running and the possibility of being protected by Italian law.”
The migrants from these rescue operations have already been transferred to reception centres throughout Italy: in Lombardy, Apulia, Tuscany, Veneto, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Lazio.
Survivors arriving in Salerno offered many dramatic stories: a girl claimed she was raped, another reported that she had seen her three children die at sea.
The 2,560 migrants rescued in these days may represent an inversion of trend, compared to the arrivals from Libya registered in recent months. Starting in August, arrivals by sea averaged between 4,000 and 6,000 per month, a sharp decrease compared to earlier this year.
“It is more difficult than ever to forecast the trend right now,” noted Soda. “The number of departures from Libya has slowed in the last four months, but we are still seeing large numbers being rescued and brought to Italy in relatively short periods of time. We are also heading into a season of the year when the weather will be less predictable and the seas more dangerous. Historically, we have seen the highest number of fatalities during the winter months. This year, this coincides with fewer active rescue operations in the Mediterranean, as many NGOs have suspended their operations.”