Ten people have been found dead in an overcrowded boat carrying migrants and refugees off the coast of Libya, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) has said, as NGOs warned of a “rescue gap” in the Mediterranean Sea.
MSF said the migrants died after spending 13 hours crammed at the bottom of a wooden boat. The charity said its Geo Barents rescue ship picked up 99 survivors on Tuesday and found the 10 victims, who are believed to have suffocated due to hydrocarbon poisoning and overcrowding.
“These deaths are a clear sign of the failure of the migration policies of the European states and their unacceptable complicity with the Libyan coastguard to facilitate pushbacks,” Juan Matías Gil, MSF’s Search and Rescue operations manager, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
“What we continue to request is a dedicated official mechanism of search and rescue with a clear mandate to avoid death at sea.”
The rescue operated by the Geneva-based charity was the third in less than 24 hours, bringing a total of 186 people on board the Geo Barents, the youngest of whom was 10 months old.
Alarm Phone, a voluntary hotline service for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, received a first distress call at around 9:30am GMT on Tuesday and alerted all relevant authorities, including the Italian and Maltese coastguards.
A second call for help was received hours later as the boat began taking on water.
“State authorities did not respond, the only one to respond was the Geo Barents,” Chiara Denaro, a volunteer with Alarm Phone, told Al Jazeera.
Denaro said the incident was indicative of the “rescue gap” in the Central Mediterranean, where a lack of European and state-run rescue operations has left NGOs struggling to provide adequate rescue services.
At least 1,236 migrants have died in the central Mediterranean so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
In recent years, the European Union has shifted from conducting search and rescue missions to training, equipping and supporting the Libyan coastguard, despite reports of violence against migrants in Libyan detention centres.
The IOM estimates 29,400 people have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard since January, almost one in two migrants who left the war-torn African country.
IOM spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo told Al Jazeera that those migrants had been returned “to the abuse they were running away from”.
“Libya is not a safe port,” Di Giacomo said, adding that a county with no chain of protection post disembarkation should not have a maritime search and rescue zone (SAR).
The phasing out of the EU’s Operation Triton and Italy’s Mare Nostrum has rendered the journey across the Mediterranean increasingly dangerous for migrants, according to the IOM representative.
“It takes hours, even days, for someone to respond to an SOS call. This is unacceptable. Migrants’ boats can sink at any moment and delaying rescue operations means putting lives at risk,” Di Giacomo said.
NGOs have also denounced what they see as punitive action by states against charities operating in the Mediterranean. The Geo Barents, which started operations in May, was impounded by the Italian coastguard in July due to alleged technical irregularities and was released after three weeks.
MSF said in a statement at the time that it had been subject to “discriminatory” inspections and that the boat had been impounded to prevent rescue missions in the Mediterranean.