On Wednesday, The French aid group Doctors without Borders (MSF) had found the bodies of 29 migrants who perished in a pool of fuel and seawater on a crowded dinghy off Libya.
Making a record, at least 3,800 migrants and refugees have perished this year while trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the highest ever toll ever on the perilous route.
As the figures passed last year’s mark of 3,771, UN refugee agency spokesman William Spindler told AFP in an email, “We can confirm that at least 3,800 people have been reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, making the death toll in 2016 the highest ever recorded.”
MSF said its chartered rescue ship, the Bourbon Argos, picked up 107 people aboard the inflatable boat 26 nautical miles off Libya yesterday. Its crew initially counted 11 corpses on the dinghy’s floor, which was flooded with a murky mixture of fuel and seawater.
The Bourbon Argos was then called away to another rescue operation nearby, saving 139 people aboard another vessel. The crew then returned to the dinghy and found 29 people had died on closer examination, probably from suffocation, skin burns or drowning. The bodies were retrieved from the toxic mixture over a period of hours, with the help of a team from the German NGO Sea-Watch.
In a statement, MSF project leader, Michele Telaro said, “The mixture of water and fuel was so foul that we could not stay on the boat for long periods. It was horrible.”
Twenty-three survivors suffered burns from exposure to fuel, 11 of whom were seriously hurt. Seven survivors were taken to hospital, two of them by helicopter. The MSF team also provided psychological help to survivors, including a man who was left clutching his eight-month-old baby after his wife died.
Stefano Argenziano, in charge of MSF’s migrant assistance activities, said, “It’s a tragedy, but sadly one cannot say that this was an exceptional day in the Mediterranean.” He added, “Last week was terrible for our teams. They were engaged around the clock in rescue operations in which too many men, women and children lost their lives.” To venture out to sea in such conditions, said Argenziano bluntly, “is a headlong rush to the cemetery.”