Some 130 migrants bound for Europe are missing off the Libyan coast after a rubber boat reported it was in distress, independent rescue groups say.

When Alarm Phone, a telephone hotline offering support to refugees in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, received alerts that two boats off Libya were in distress on Wednesday morning, a crew immediately started searching for two rubber boats. 

The vessels were at least ten hours from the Ocean Viking rescue ship that went to look for them. Racing against time under unruly sea conditions with waves up to six metres, the crew didn’t stop for 48 hours. 

Then, on Thursday, “the crew of the Ocean Viking had to witness the devastating aftermath of the shipwreck,” said SOS Mediterranee, a European Organisation for the Rescue of Lives at Sea in a statement. “Our worst fear has come true.”

Around 130 migrants are believed to have drowned. Only three bodies were found by a merchant ship, My Rose. A Frontex airplane later spotted one rubber boat and ten more bodies near the vicinity of the wreck, where the Ocean Viking crew had found no survivors.

“I have no trouble admitting that I spent a few hours in the bathroom, vomiting... I was exhausted, dehydrated, I hardly managed to get back into bed, and all that while I was protected by a ship like a mighty lady of the sea that weighs thousands of tons,” said one team member, Alessandro, in a testimony on Friday. 

“Outside, somewhere in those same waves, a dinghy carrying 120 people. Or 100, or 130. We will never know, because they are all dead,” the rescuer said. 

A disaster that could have been prevented

In only four months of 2021, over 350 people who have embarked on dangerous journeys from North Africa in order to reach Europe, have died. That number excludes this latest incident that has tragically taken yet more lives. Many of the migrants are from Libya, where a civil war has forced thousands of people to flee. 

But Alessandro, the rescuer, says people don’t pay enough attention to tragedies in the Mediterranean.

“If an airplane had crashed in the same area, the navies of half of Europe would have been there, but they were just migrants, soil for the Mediterranean cemetery, for whom it is pointless to run, and indeed we were left alone,” the rescuer said.

Rescuers and human rights organisations providing assistance at sea often point out that many of these disasters never needed to happen and can be avoided in the future if states take responsibility. 

“States abandon their responsibility to coordinate Search and Rescue operations, leaving private actors and civil society to fill the deadly void they leave behind. We can see the result of this deliberate inaction in the sea around our ship,” said Sos Mediterranee. 

Rescue organisations often carry out their efforts at sea in the absence of effective state-led coordination, or without support from the responsible maritime authorities, as in the case of the latest incident. 

At other times, Coast Guards are blamed for the arbitrary detention of migrants they rescue from the sea. 

Earlier this week, a woman and child died on an overcrowded rubber boat in international waters. The Libyan Coast Guard returned more than 100 migrants to Libyan shores to detain them, the International Organisation for Migration said on Wednesday.