A migrant aid group has accused Libya’s coast guard of abandoning three people in the Mediterranean Sea, including a woman and a toddler who both died, after intercepting 160 Europe-bound migrants near the shores of the North African nation.
Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish rescue group, said on Tuesday that it had found one woman alive and another one dead, along with the body of a toddler, amid the drifting remains of a destroyed migrant boat.
Their dinghy was completely deflated, with the victims lying on the few wooden planks that remained afloat.
The survivor identified herself only as Josepha, saying she was 40 years old and from the West African state of Cameroon. The rescue ship’s medical team said she was in a stable condition but was traumatised, adding that she needed medical and psychological treatment "as soon as possible".
The Libyans had left the scene after the three refused to board their patrol ship, the charity said. The wrecked migrant boat was found 80 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
The organisation posted images and videos of the wreckage and the dead bodies on social media, accusing both a merchant ship sailing in international waters and Libya’s coast guard for failing to help the three migrants.
Ayoub Gassim, a Libyan coast guard spokesman, had earlier said that a boat carrying 158 passengers including 34 women and nine children had been stopped on Monday off the coast of the western town of Khoms.
He said the migrants were given humanitarian and medical aid and were taken to a refugee camp.
Libya has emerged as a major transit point to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East. Traffickers have exploited Libya’s chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Gaddafi.
Italy’s new populist government has vowed to halt the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean and has given aid to Libyan authorities to step up efforts to stem the flow.
Human rights activists have sharply criticised that assistance, saying migrants being returned to Libya are at risk of facing beatings, abuse, rape and slavery.
The head of Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps, on Tuesday blamed the Italian government’s cooperation with Libyan authorities for the death of the woman and the toddler that his group found.
"This is the direct consequence of contracting armed militias to make the rest of Europe believe that Libya is a state, a government and a safe country," said Mr Camps, in a video posted on Twitter.
He said the two women and the toddler had refused to board the Libyan vessels with the rest of the intercepted migrants, and the three were abandoned in the sea after the Libyan coast guard destroyed the migrants’ boat.
He also said their deaths were the result of not allowing aid groups like Proactiva to work in the Mediterranean.
Both Italy and Malta have blocked aid groups from operating rescue boats, either by refusing them entry to their ports or by impounding their vessels and putting their crews under investigation.
Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister who is also the head of far-right League, is leading a high-profile campaign to exclude humanitarian ships from Italian ports.
He says any rescue operations off the Libyan coast should be handled by Libya’s limited coast guard.
"Lies and insults from some foreign NGO confirm that we are in the right: reducing departures and arrivals means reducing deaths, and reducing the gains of those who speculate on illegal migration," he tweeted, adding: "I stand firm, ports closed and hearts open."
And he defiantly insisted Italy would continue its new policy of refusing to accept migrant boats.
"Two Spanish NGO ships have returned to the Mediterranean waiting to be loaded with human beings. They should save themselves time and money, they will only see Italian ports on postcards."
The UN migration agency, meanwhile, said the number of migrants and refugees who have arrived in Spain by sea this year has overtaken those who have reached Italy.
The International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday that Spain saw 18,016 migrants up to July 15, while 17,827 people landed in Italy during the same period.
Aid groups have reported a rise in the number of crossings to Spain and Greece compared to the previous year, while arrivals in Italy are down almost 80 per cent from 2017.
The overall number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea this year totals 50,872, less than half the 109,746 who came in by mid-July last year.
In 2016 during the same period, 241,859 migrants came to Europe. IOM also said 1,443 people are dead or missing in the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route up to July 15 this year.