Migrants in rescue rafts waiting to be taken aboard the LE Niamh. Irish Defense Forces photo.
By Irish Echo Staff
The Irish Naval Service has again found itself in the front line of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
The LE Niamh yesterday rushed to the scene of a capsizing fishing boat off the coast of Libya.
And today the Niamh arrived in Palermo, Sicily with 367 people on board, one of them being a one-year-old baby girl.
It is feared that as many as 200 people may have drowned when the boat tipped over, apparently after people on board rushed to one side of it after rescue ships were spotted.
Only a relatively few bodies have been recovered thus far.
In a message posted online, the Irish Naval Service stated: “Our crew on the LÉ NIAMH had a difficult day yesterday, with the recovery, in tragic circumstances, of 14 deceased persons amongst the hundreds they had saved.
“As they make their way this evening to a port of safety, we want them to know that we understand and appreciate the sheer effort required of them to accomplish the mission. Sad work, LÉ Niamh, but good work.”
The rescue effort was being reported worldwide.
The Chicago Tribune reported that a fishing boat carrying an estimated 600 migrants capsized.
Reported the Tribune: “The Irish naval vessel Le Niamh was one of several ships requested by the Italian coast guard to speed to the rescue of the overturned boat shortly before noon, Irish Captain Donal Gallagher told The Associated Press by phone.
“Gallagher said that according to preliminary reports some 150 migrants were spotted in the water after the smugglers' boat, which was estimated to have been carrying 600 migrants, overturned. ‘An Italian (military) helicopter has dropped additional life rafts’ into the sea, Gallagher said.
Also involved in the rescue were an Italian vessel and a boat operated by Doctors Without Borders.
Added the report: “Fleeing war, persecution and poverty, the migrants travel overland for weeks or months from sub-Saharan Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia to reach Libya. There they set sail in flimsy motorized rubber dinghies or rickety old fishing boats. When the boats have problems, someone aboard contacts the coast guard by satellite phone requesting rescue. Other boats in distress are spotted by Triton air surveillance.
Most of the migrants hope to find asylum, relatives or jobs, mainly in northern Europe.”
As many as 2000 have died so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe.
CNN reported Ireland’s defense minister, Simon Coveney, as saying: "Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have lost their lives, the survivors and the rescuers for whom this is an extremely difficult operation.”
According to the Irish Naval Service the LÉ Niamh was tasked to the rescue at 8 a.m. Irish time by the Italian Marine Rescue Co-Ordination Centre which estimated that 600 people were on board the stricken fishing vessel.
The Niamh arrived at the scene 110 kilometers north-west of Tripoli at 11.45 a.m. and deployed two rhibs (rigid hull inflatable boats) either side of the vessel; however the vessel capsized.
The LÉ Niamh (LÉ stands for Long Éireannach or “Irish Ship”) was joined at the scene by the Medécins Sans Frontiére ship Dignity One and a number of helicopters including Italian military aircraft.
The Niamh was sent to the Mediterranean a month ago to replace the LÉ Eithne.
Up to yesterday’s mission Niamh had rescued 1,280 migrants from vessels off the North African coast.
It can be grim work. Last week, the Niamh’s crew recovered 14 bodies from a barge west of Tripoli during one of its missions.