ON THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA / AP
As usual, it started with a call on a satellite phone from Italian rescue officials in Rome. They were relaying a distress call they’d received from a migrant smuggling ship adrift somewhere off the coast of Libya.
On board the Golfo Azurro, Guillermo Canardo was taking notes.
“Two boats,” he said. “One hundred people in each one.”
He paused, then asked the question that needed to be asked: “Are they (the migrants) still moving?”
A fishing trawler-turned-exploration yacht-turned-rescue ship, the 30-year-old Golfo Azurro is now operated by Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish nonprofit dedicated to rescuing migrants before they are consumed by the unforgiving Mediterranean Sea.
It works the SAR zone — the search-and-rescue zone — which starts 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast and goes 12 miles deeper into the sea’s unpredictable waters. This is the last, deadliest section of the migrant highway known as “the Libyan route” that slices across the African continent. According to UNHCR, an average of 14 people died in the Mediterranean every day in 2016, the highest number ever recorded.
Canardo, the head of rescue operations on the Golfo Azurro, spoke that April day to Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, which passed along the troubled vessels’ coordinates.
Half a dozen rescuers quickly put on wetsuits and loaded sacks of lifejackets onto two orange rubber rescue boats. Fernando Garfella, skipper of the lead rescue boat, confirmed the coordinates and sped toward the target. After 15
minutes, a dot appeared on the horizon.
Most migrants on the Mediterranean are now trying to reach Italy. Those numbers have dramatically increased since the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement last year that allowed Greece to send new asylum-seekers back to Turkey. In exchange, the EU agreed to speed up visas for Turkish citizens and donate 6 billion euros ($6.4 billion) to help support the hundreds of thousands of refugees living on Turkish soil.
Over the long Easter weekend, at least 8,300 migrants were rescued at sea, according to a UN refugee agency official, Carlotta Sami, who tweeted that “rescuers worked incessantly for three days.” At least eight bodies were recovered.
On that April day, rescuers found two jam-packed boats with 152 people — 66 in a rubber boat, 86 in a wooden boat — 56 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
Boats have capsized previously — leading to dozens of drownings — when desperate migrants jumped into the water trying to be rescued first.
Each rescue brings another story, often full of heartbreak but with a common theme — a dream for a better life, an
escape from fear or hunger.
Yakubu Yahya, a 17-year-old from Niger, went to Libya searching for his missing parents and was kidnapped in the Libyan city of Sabha.
The migrants kept off the Libyan streets as much as they could, afraid of being kidnapped. If they are taken, kidnappers often hang their victims by their feet or fire off guns near their heads as their families are called on the phone, to terrify the families into paying ransoms.