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The rescue ship Aquarius can be seen in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea in June 2017. The boat is jointly operated by the relief organizations SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders in order to safe migrants in distress at sea. (Photo: Lena Klimkeit/dpa via Getty Images)

At Least 120 Asylum-Seekers Feared Dead in Shipwreck Off Libyan Coast, After Authorities' Inaction

"These are the human consequences of policies which fail to uphold international law and the most basic of humanitarian imperatives."

Julia Conley

International rescue organizations on Friday condemned the inaction of European and Libyan authorities after at least 120 asylum-seekers were believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya.

The volunteer rescue hotline Alarm Phone alerted humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée on Tuesday, saying three boats were in distress in the Mediterranean Sea.

Alarm Phone said it had been in contact about the boat on Wednesday with European migration authorities, who told the group to speak with Libyan officials. 

"States abandon their responsibility to coordinate search and rescue operations, leaving private actors and civil society to fill the deadly void they leave behind."
—SOS Méditerranée

"The Libyan coastguard, however, refused to launch or coordinate a rescue operation, leaving the 130 people out in a rough sea for a whole night," it said.

After conducting an hourslong search, SOS Méditerranée found dozens of bodies in the sea near a capsized vessel, which they found northeast of Tripoli.

The deaths of the refugees, Alarm Phone wrote on social media, "prove the need for safe corridors of migration and the abolition of violent border guards and institutions."

"The people could have been rescued but all authorities knowingly left them to die at sea," Alarm Phone told The Guardian.

The deaths of the more than 120 asylum-seekers are just the latest losses in a crisis that has killed more than 350 people in the stretch of sea that the boat was traveling in this week, according to SOS Méditerranée.

Authorities have seized a number of NGO rescue boats in the past year, keeping them in Italian ports. Prosecutors have also opened investigations into the humanitarian groups. 

Nicholas Romaniuk, a search and rescue coordinator for SOS Méditerranée, told Al Jazeera in 2019 that European authorities have "complete disregard" for the lives of asylum-seekers traveling through the Mediterranean by way of Libya, often on vessels launched by human smugglers. 

"These boats are not made for sea. They are then loaded with men, women, and children and sent out at sea without any life-saving appliances," said Romaniuk. "If anything happens, it's almost certain these people will die. It hasn't seemed to matter to the European authorities. No matter how much I stress to them, and repeatedly, that there are people in danger and I can't get through to the Libyans, the answer has always been to keep trying them again."

Following the deaths of the refugees this week, SOS Méditerranée accused European and Libyan authorities of "deliberate inaction."

"States abandon their responsibility to coordinate search and rescue operations, leaving private actors and civil society to fill the deadly void they leave behind," the group said.

Eugenio Ambrosi, chief of staff of the International Organization for Migration, also condemned officials.

"These are the human consequences of policies which fail to uphold international law and the most basic of humanitarian imperatives," Ambrosi said.

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