CATANIA, Sicily - The agonising deaths of eight people in the Mediterranean yesterday has laid bare the near-impossible decisions facing NGOs operating rescue ships off the coast of Libya.
The five men and three women were most likely asphyxiated and crushed to death after being crammed with 119 others aboard an inflatable dinghy designed for around 20.
When the boat collapsed, fuel from the motors mixed with seawater creating a corrosive liquid which burned many of those trying to escape.
Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator, said: “Afterwards the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome asked us to take on board eight dead people that were left in the rubber boat that was rescued today.
“Among the eight dead people, were five men and three women, all pretty young, between 20 and maybe a maximum of 35-years-of age.”
NGOs have been negotiating terms of a new code of conduct for migrant rescues with the Italian government. Officials fear the groups are unwittingly facilitating people smuggling from North Africa and in turn encouraging more to make the journey.
But with the flow of migrants unlikely to stop with the ongoing instability in Libya, aid agencies are stuck in a Catch-22 situation - if they continue rescues they may encourage more but if they stop, people will die.
On Monday three of eight NGOs signed up to the new rules but five others, including SOS Méditerranée, refused.
One of the sticking points in negotiations, the banning of transferring migrants from one boat to another, would have had a direct effect on yesterday’s rescue.
The transfers allow rescue ships to consolidate those saved so that only one vessel has to return to port allowing the others to keep patrolling.
Another sticking point is the Italian government’s insistence on allowing armed police on board, something the NGOs argue would compromise their neutrality.
Save the Children was one of the three that did sign. Rik Goverde who work’s aboard the charity’s ship, the Vos Hestia, told HuffPost UK: “As for the situation at sea, regarding the Code of Conduct - we’ll see how it will play out.
“For us the most important thing is that we’re able to keep bringing people to safety, in close cooperation with Italian authorities and other NGOs.”