Suicide attempts, fights engulf rescue boat carrying 180 migrants

Thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries have lost their lives in recent years attempting to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats. AFP/FEDERICO SCOPPA

An AFP news agency reporter on board the boat said tensions have risen over the past week as migrants have become increasingly desperate to reach land.

Six migrants on board a rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea tried to kill themselves and others have gotten into fights and threatened fellow passengers and crew members in growing desperation over their inability to find a country willing to take them in, the charity that operates the vessel said.

SOS Mediterranee, which operates the Ocean Viking, said in a statement on Friday that the ship carrying 180 migrants declared a state of emergency to stress the deteriorating situation on board as the crew renews its appeals for safe harbour.

“This is an unprecedented step in the history of SOS MEDITERRANEE, triggered first and foremost by the rapid deterioration of the mental health of some of the survivors on board, particularly among a group of 44 people,” the charity said in a statement.

“The 44 people who we requested assistance for are in a state of acute mental distress, expressed intentions to inflict harm both on themselves and on others, including members of the crew, and expressed suicidal ideas.”

The charity said it lodged seven requests for permission to enter a port and said it had received a negative response from Italy and Malta after its first request for a port, and no replies to its six subsequent requests.

Meanwhile, Italy responded with the telephone number of a psychologist, the group said.

There were no immediate government responses from either country about the alleged refusals.

The migrants were rescued from the unseaworthy boats of people smugglers in the central Mediterranean during four operations between June 25 and June 30.

SOS Mediterranee said the first operation took place in international waters where Italy and Malta have overlapping rescue jurisdiction, while the other rescues occurred in Malta’s search-and-rescue area. ‘I don’t feel safe’

The people rescued include a pregnant woman and 25 minors, 17 of them travelling without relatives or guardians, the charity said.

The migrants, which include Pakistanis, North Africans, Eritreans, Nigerians, and others, were picked up after fleeing Libya in four separate rescues by the Ocean Viking.

In addition to threatening to harm themselves or others, some of the passengers have started fighting among themselves, it said.

SOS Mediterranee said two migrants jumped overboard in what the organisation said appeared to be suicide attempts and were rescued from the sea again, while three others were stopped before they plunged off the ship. It reported that another passenger tried to kill himself on board, the charity said.

It called the “concerning behavior and decline of mental health” of some of the rescued passengers a “direct result of the unnecessary standoff at sea and lack of solution” for a port.

SOS Mediterranee expressed worry that “in addition to the acute psychological distress several of the survivors find themselves in, the deteriorating weather conditions pose an even greater threat to the lives of those who might try to reach the shore by jumping off” the Ocean Viking.

An AFP news agency reporter on board the boat said tensions have risen over the past week as migrants have become increasingly desperate to reach land. Others have become distraught not being able to telephone their families to let them know they were safe.

A member of the crew, Ludovic, told AFP he had never witnessed such violence on board a rescue vessel, after a spate of fights between migrants and threats of suicide.

“I don’t feel safe,” Ludovic said. “We have to find a port now, it’s a question of safety.”

Nicholas Romaniuk, in charge of rescue operations on board, said there was no “legal or moral” reason to keep the migrants on board.

“It’s Malta who alerted us and gave us the position of one of the boats in distress and now they don’t answer the phone,” Romaniuk said.

More than 100,000 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean last year with more than 1,200 dying in the attempt, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Both Italy and Malta have taken a hard line on private rescue boats, expressing concern that such operations could encourage Libya-based human traffickers to keep launching migrants towards Europe in dangerous conditions.

The two countries have also insisted fellow European Union members take in more migrants as asylum-seekers since those who reach Europe’s southern shores are often aiming to make nations in northern Europe their final destinations. Few nations have answered the Italian and Maltese appeals.

The arrival of summer and more favourable conditions at sea may lead to an increase of attempts to cross the Mediterranean with the hope of arriving in Europe.

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