3,000 people saved in Mediterranean sea over one weekend, a year since EU-Turkey migrant deal

Sofia Lotto Persio
Child refugee in Lesbos

Children were seen dancing to the sound of bongo drums aboard the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) vessel Aquarius on 19 March.

These were some of hundreds of people saved in Mediterranean Sea, in the international waters off the Libyan coast, over the weekend. Around 3,000 lives were saved in operations led by the Italian Coast Guards, non-governmental organisations and the European Union naval force, Italian news agency Ansa reported.

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According to Sos Mediterranee, the organisation co-ordinating NGO's rescue operations in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius vessel was transporting a total 946 people, double its theoretical capacity. This included 818 men, 128 women and 248 minors, of whom 214 were unaccompanied.

On one boat that was rescued, described as "miniscule" by the organisation, there were a total 38 unaccompanied minors, some of whom joined in the dancing on board of the ship as it made its way to Sicily.

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The scenes of jubilation recorded among survivors are understandable. "When we hear of the risks they took, we understand their relief. The chances of finding a boat in the open sea in the middle of the night are so small," the organisation wrote on its Facebook account.

Sos Mediterranee's director Sophie Beau called on the countries and agencies involved in rescue operations to be more prepared to handle increasing numbers of boats attempting the crossing as the weather conditions improve.

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"We repeat this once again. Confronted with the massive departures that this window of weather allows, we must increase the sea rescue capacity. The absolute priority of all countries, all agencies and all European institutions has to be the preservation of human life, and thousands of lives depend on it," she wrote in a statement.

The latest data published by the International Migration Organisation on 17 March counted 15,852 arrivals and 481 deaths or disappearances at sea since the beginning of 2017 on the Central Mediterranean route, between Libya and Italy. The figure has risen in comparison to the same period in 2016, when the IOM recorded 10,727 arrivals and 100 deaths or disappearances.

A year since the enactment of the EU-Turkey migrant deal, arrivals from the Mediterranean sea have drastically dropped. However, the number of deaths has increased, both on the Italy-Libya route and on the Western Mediterranean route between Spain and Morocco.

According to the deal, which Turkey has threatened to scrap on several occasions, Turkey receives funding for preventing migrants and asylum-seekers continuing on to European shores and accepts those whose asylum request was rejected, in an attempt to reduce the flow of people arriving on the continent.

In a statement published online, MSF called for a review of the deal. "One year later men, women and children are now either trapped in unsafe zones outside of Europe unable to flee, forced to use even more dangerous smuggling routes to reach Europe or trapped in overcrowded 'hotspots' on the Greek islands and losing all hope for the future," the NGO wrote.

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