A total of 412 people will be disembarked in Sicily on Saturday morning after they were rescued off the Libyan coast by the Sea-Watch 3, a rescue ship run by a German charity.
On board are people from 22 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, according to Patrick Lee, a 24-year-old Irishman who drove one of the lifeboats during the rescues. More than 100 were minors, including a nine-day-old baby.
“The people are jubilant. Many broke out in song and danced, some cried, the crew included,” he said, describing the moment they learned that the Italian authorities had given them permission to dock. Both the rescued people and the ship’s crew will begin a ten-day quarantine after arriving in Pozzallo, Sicily.
Mr Lee – who was on his first rescue mission – said they carried out five rescues in just one day. Most of the people they rescued had been on rubber boats for 12-14 hours before they were found.
“The rescues are like nothing I have ever seen before and the pressure is immense,” he said. “Nobody drowned during any of our rescues despite the so-called Libyan coastguard... approaching and destabilising the situation during two rescues and one of the rubber boats bursting and beginning to sink during another... People on the move tell me they would rather drown than be intercepted and brought back to Libya. ”
More than 82,000 people have been intercepted at sea by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard since 2017 and returned to Libya, where they are locked up indefinitely in detention centres run by militias.
Roughly 49,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year, according to UN figures . At least 1,202 have died or gone missing while trying to make the crossing, and 26,705 people have been intercepted .
As the Sea-Watch 3 waited for permission to approach land, four medical evacuations took place: two of women with extreme fuel burns and two of pregnant women, one of whom has already given birth in Italy. Three of the 22 crew on board are medics, Mr Lee said. “The medics have barely slept this week, they are working around the clock to care for the people on board. There are many people with serious injuries and disabilities.”
Another independent rescue ship, the Geo Barents, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, is now patrolling off the Libyan coast and has already rescued 36 people, including 15 children under the age of 15, according to its social media sites.
Mr Lee said he was frustrated at the lack of European state search and rescue patrols in the central Mediterranean. “Ireland manages to absolve itself by way of our geography from a lot of responsibility when it comes to refugees. We absolutely do not play our part,” he said.
“An NGO should not be doing the work of a European coastguard. Europe needs to restart a proper search and rescue operation in the central Mediterranean and to provide safe and legal routes for people to flee conflict in Libya.”