Mi­grants ‘plead for help’ from Ital­ian Coast Guard


“We need your help, we need your help, please,” pleads a des­per­ate voice down the phone to the Ital­ian Coast Guards.

The chaotic call, made by satel­lite phone in bro­ken English from a boat some­where in the Mediter­ranean, is just one of many reg­u­larly re­ceived by staff at the ser­vice’s emer­gency op­er­a­tional cen­ter in south­ern Rome.

“What is your po­si­tion?” the duty Coast Guard asks sev­eral times. “What are you co­or­di­nates?” he says, try­ing again. “How many of you are there?”

Ac­cord­ing to Filippo Marini of the ser­vice, the cen­ter re­ceives an “in­cred­i­ble num­ber” of calls like this.

“For­tu­nately we have agree­ments with the satel­lite phone com­pany which help us to find the ge­o­graph­i­cal co­or­di­nates of the call and from that mo­ment on we launch the res­cue boats.”

In a spa­cious room at this huge, mod­ern build­ing, staff work around the clock mon­i­tor­ing screens show­ing the po­si­tion of ves­sels and the lat­est weather con­di­tions in the Mediter­ranean.

On a ta­ble in the mid­dle of the room is their most im­por­tant res­cue tool — the phone.

Dis­tress calls come di­rect from the mi­grants them­selves and from their rel­a­tives anx­ious to alert the au­thor­i­ties to their plight.

Ten­sions at the cen­ter some­times reach a peak, such as at the end of last year when the cen­ter had to si­mul­ta­ne­ously man­age the ar­rival of a mi­grant ship aban­doned by its crew, a fire on board a ferry in the Adri­atic and a col­li­sion of two other boats.

“They brought us food on carts, we did not leave the room,” re­calls one of­fi­cer at the cen­ter, Flo­ri­ana Seg­reto.

The search and res­cue zone cov­ered by the Ital­ian Coast Guard in the­ory spreads across half a mil­lion square kilo­me­ters.

But due to the cri­sis in Libya, the area has now been ex­tended to around 1-2 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters.

‘Race against the clock’

Over the past five months, the ma­jor­ity of boats have been in­flat­a­bles in poor con­di­tion com­ing from Libya.

“Since Jan­uary, we have recorded the ar­rival of 190 in­flat­a­bles against 70 other dif­fer­ent types of boats,” Marini said.

“All th­ese small boats are over­loaded and in­evitably des­tined for a tragic end un­less we in­ter­vene. It’s al­ways a race against the clock,” he added.

Gian­luca Dagostino, an­other of­fi­cer at the cen­ter, told AFP a swift re­sponse was cru­cial.

“The op­er­a­tion is im­me­di­ate, a quick re­ac­tion rep­re­sents our best weapon,” he said.

“The mi­grants’ boats are some­times 10 me­ters long with 100 to 120 peo­ple on board. It’s in­cred­i­ble. In Italy there would be 10 to 15 peo­ple at most on boats of this type.

“Al­most none of th­ese mi­grants has a life­jacket. Death lurks be­hind ev­ery phone call,” he added.

This year alone, 1,770 men, women and chil­dren have ei­ther died or are miss­ing at sea, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Migration (IOM), while around 40,000 mi­grants have landed in Italy.

The Coast Guard is also keen to point out the vi­tal res­cue work car­ried out by oth­ers.

“We could not res­cue all th­ese peo­ple with­out the help of the cargo ships. Of the 170,000 peo­ple res­cued last year 42,000 were res­cued by them,” Marini said.

Now, fol­low­ing a few days of poor con­di­tions and strong waves, fine weather has re­sumed — and with it the de­par­tures from Libya.

Sud­denly, the Coast Guard have their hands full again. “Ex­cuse us, we have an alert of four boats,” one of them says as they turn back to their screens.

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