North Africa to Lampedusa, the terrible voyage that Europe ignores
“According to the refugees, when water ran out people drank sea water and their own urine. They ate toothpaste. One by one people started to die. After waiting a day or so, they decided they had to drop the bodies into the sea.”
That is the account of Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to a Geneva news briefing. In a UNHCR camp in Tunisia, agency workers interviewed three Ethiopian men who said they were among nine survivors from a boat that left Tripoli on March 25 carrying 72 people.
Their boat is the one that NATO warships ignored.
One of the Ethiopians interviewed said the boat ran out of fuel, water and food, then drifted for more than two weeks before reaching a beach back in Libya. Military vessels had twice passed the 12-meter-long boat, crowded to the point there was barely standing room, without stopping, he said. The first boat refused a request to board and the second just took photos, although he could not say where the vessels had come from.
Fleming said that the boat was among many believed to have left Libya without a captain, leaving the migrants to do the navigation themselves. “I have heard accounts that perhaps there has been a captain for the first 100 meters or so and then a small boat will take the captain back to shore. They provide the passengers with a compass and say ‘Lampedusa is in that direction. Best of luck’,” said Fleming, referring to the small southern Italian island where many refugees have headed.
One in 10 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya by sea is likely to drown or die from hunger and exhaustion in appalling conditions during the crossing, the UN refugee agency said Friday. Around 12,000 migrants have arrived at reception centers in Malta and Italy. An estimated 1,200 are missing and presumed dead, adding a further human tragedy to the thousands killed in three months of fighting to topple leader Muammar Gaddafi.