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Drama and joy at sea as MSF rescues children as young as 11

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Rescued asylum-seekers about to disembark in port of Palermo, Sicily Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

A growing number of West African children — some as young as 11 — are onboard unseaworthy vessels bound for Europe, warns French medical charity MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders.


Calm weather conditions in the Mediterranean Sea are encouraging smugglers to cram thousands of asylum-seekers onboard inflatable dinghies and fishing boats.

European ships picked up thousands at the weekend.

The MSF-chartered Bourbon Argos rescued Saturday 311 people from three overcrowded dinghies, including a punctured rubber boat that was sinking, 25 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.

The passengers included 75 boys from francophone West African countries.

“The first thing that struck us when they got onboard was how young they were,” said Lindis Hurum, MSF emergency coordinator onboard the Bourbon Argos. “We asked: Do you have a brother, a parent? They answered: No we are travelling alone.”

The children, who were taken to Vibo Valentia on the Italian mainland, include an 11-year-old from Guinea Conakry and a 15-year-old who fled Côte d’Ivoire during the 2011 civil war.

The older boy described matter-of-factly the violence he had been subjected to in his country and how he had eked out a living in Libya, revealing that reaching Libya was only one of his two dreams.

“As any 15-year-old his biggest dream was to become a professional footballer player with Barcelona,” Hurum recounted.

Many refugees told her that they would never return to Libya, saying that they would rather “jump into the sea” to avoid what they described as overt racism.

Kept in “houses” on the Libyan coastline for several days, sometimes weeks, they report being beaten by armed men — and even armed children — before leaving. Some of the refugees showed Hurum their wounds and scars.

The 68-metre Bourbon Argos, which can carry up to 350, has been operating in the Mediterranean Sea since May. The crew of 26 includes medical and nursing staff.

Hurum, who has been with MSF for nine years, said that none of her other assignments could be compared to the ongoing sea operations.

The drama of being rescued at sea combined with the relief and joy of surviving a high-risk escape lead many passengers to break down.

“When they are onboard they pray, they sing, they cry,” Hurum recounted. “It’s very intense, very emotional.”
 

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011