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A mayday call, a dash across the Mediterranean … and 130 souls lost at sea | Human rights

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The weather was already turning when the distress call went out. A rubber dinghy with 130 people onboard was adrift in the choppy Mediterranean waters.

On the bridge of the Ocean Viking, one of the only remaining NGO rescue boats operational in the Mediterranean, 121 nautical miles west, stood Luisa Albera, staring anxiously at her computer screen and then out at the rising storm and falling light at sea.

When the distress call from Alarm Phone, the volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline, was received late on Wednesday, the Ocean Viking was already engaged in a rescue mission. All day the crew had been combing the horizon for another vessel, a wooden boat with 42 people onboard, but so far their search had been in vain. No sign of life or position had been received since early morning.

A seasoned sailor who had already conducted dozens of rescue missions, Albera knew that time was short. A violent storm was coming, and it would take the Viking hours to reach the dinghy.

She also knew that if the they didn’t turn around, the 130 people onboard would most likely be left to die. At 5.30pm, the Ocean Viking abandoned its search for the other vessel and altered its course: Albera had decided to go after the rubber boat.

“These decisions we are forced to make are life-and-death decisions,” said Albera, the search and rescue coordinator for SOS Méditerranée, the NGO that operates the Ocean Viking. “It is never easy to abandon a search but we had an updated position on the dinghy and there was a chance we could make it. I have to live with these decisions every day. It’s a burden I shouldn’t have to shoulder.”

As night fell, the sea turned hostile. Two hours later, the Ocean Viking was plunging through 5-metre (16ft) waves towards the last known position of the dinghy. Then, the call they were dreading came. An anonymous mayday signal was received, an urgent call for all ships in the area to divert and attempt a rescue of those onboard the rubber craft. It was last located in the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone so Albera called the Libyan authorities to request help. They refused to confirm whether they would be assisting, or to give the Viking any updates on the dinghy’s position.

She next called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), and the European border agency, Frontex. Neither replied.

“It’s very rare for any of the authorities in Libya or Italy to agree to help. Sometimes you can get lucky and you can catch someone who might be persuaded on a human level to provide assistance but it’s still rare,” she said.

Remains of the rubber dinghy float on the surface of the ocean.
The storm had torn apart the fragile rubber dinghy on which the migrants travelled. Photograph: Flavio Gasperini/AP

As the storm raged and lashed around them and the boat was violently tossed from side to side, below deck the medical team went through inventory checks of supplies and first-aid drills to treat multiple casualties. “We knew we wouldn’t arrive until morning. If there would be any survivors they would have been in the water for hours. They would be freezing, seasick and have hypothermia,” says Tanguy Louppe, a former soldier and firefighter turned sea rescuer and who now heads the search and rescue team on the Ocean Viking.

Yet the mood had changed onboard the Viking. Without immediate assistance, both the deteriorating weather conditions and the darkness would mean that the boat would capsize or be torn apart. The Viking continued to power through the waves, but the storm was making progress painfully slow. Every hour that went by, the chance of finding anyone alive was slipping away.

Louppe gathered the crew together and told them to prepare for a mass casualty plan. “We know we won’t be there until morning. We have to expect the worst,” he told them.

On the bridge, Albera was clinging on to hope. Three merchant boats had also responded to the mayday call. None of them would be able to carry out a rescue, but if they located the rubber dinghy they might be able to give it shelter until the Viking arrived.

At 5am on Thursday, the Viking finally reached the last-known location of the dinghy. With no sign of any help from the Italian or Libyan authorities, the three merchant vessels had coordinated their efforts to mount a search, and once again Albera called Frontex to request aerial support to assist.

For over six hours, the four ships scoured the waves for any sign of life. Then, at 12.24pm, one of the merchant vessels radioed to say that three people had been spotted in the water. Ten minutes later, Frontex announced that it had spotted the remains of a boat.

A control room in the NGO-operated SOS Méditerranée
A control room in the NGO-operated SOS Méditerranée. A spokesman said: ‘We are forced to make life-or-death decisions.’ Photograph: Flavio Gasperini/SOS Mediterranee

When Albera and her crew arrived, they found a scene of desolation: an open cemetery in an otherwise breathtakingly pretty, deep blue sea.

The rubber boat hadn’t stood a chance against the fury of the storm. The deck of the boat had disappeared. Only a few grey floating buoys remained. Around them, dozens of lifeless bodies floated in the waves. The Ocean Viking, with a team of trained rescuers and medics onboard, had arrived too late. Among the men, women and children they found in the water, there were no survivors.

This stretch of sea has become a morgue for thousands of people trying to reach Europe on cheap wooden boats or fragile pieces of rubber thatcannot withstand the elements or the political indifference that seals their fate.

Since 2014, 17,664 people have lost their lives crossing the central Mediterranean. This week another 130 were added to the death toll.

The crew of the Viking have been through this before but the scale left them stunned. “We are heartbroken,” Albera said. “We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones.’’

On Friday, as news of the tragedy made headlines around the world, Frontex issued a rare statement to Italian press agency Ansa, confirming that they had issued the mayday signal and defending their response to the tragedy.

“Frontex immediately alerted national rescue centres in Italy, Malta and Libya, as required by international law,” it said.

The agency said in its statement that it had “issued several distress calls on the marine emergency radio channel to alert all vessels in the vicinity due to the critical situation and bad weather” and confirmed that it had sent out aerial support.

For Albera, the Frontex statement is an acknowledgement of the gravity of what happened that night. “This is the first time that Frontex has ever confirmed it sent a mayday because the situation was so grave,” says Albera. “They knew the boat had no chance of making it.”

Alarm Phone, who initially sent out the first alarm signal, claims it was in contact with the dinghy for over 10 hours and repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation to European and Libyan authorities and the wider public. “People could have been rescued but all authorities knowingly left them to die at sea,” it said. The United Nations migration agency also condemned the inaction. “The lack of an efficient patrolling system is undeniable and unacceptable,” Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy’s spokesman for the UN migration agency, said on Twitter. “Things need to change.”

In 2017, Europe ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya as part of a deal struck between Italy and Libya aimed at reducing migrant flows across the sea.

Since then, Libyan authorities have been accused of ignoring distress calls or intercepting dinghies and returning people to detention centres in Libya, where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse.

Since the start of 2018, there have been around 50 legal cases brought against NGO crew members or rescue vessels by the Italian and other European governments, and boats have been blocked in harbours or forced to remain at sea with migrants onboard.

For over 10 hours after they arrived at the wreck, Ocean Viking stayed with the bodies, waiting for instructions from the Libyan authorities. Since the dinghy sank in Libya’s search and rescue area, the responsibility for recovering those who had died fell to the Libyan MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center). If the Viking crew had tried to pull people from the water, then their entire mission may have been jeopardised. Yet no patrol boat arrived.

The decision to leave was, says Albera, traumatising for everyone onboard the Viking. “It is terrible burden to have to make that choice. We waited all day for instructions [or for a patrol boat to arrive]. There was nothing more we could do for those poor people,” she says.

Since 2016, the Ocean Viking and the Aquarius, the other SOS Méditerranée vessel, have saved 32,711 lives at sea. “We have to continue our mission, as this way there is a chance that we can prevent others from meeting the same fate,” says Albera. “But the decision to leave is something that all of us onboard will have to live with for ever.”

This article was amended on 25 April 2021. In an earlier version, a headline referred incorrectly to the Mediterranean as an ocean; the text referred to “6ft waves” rather than 5-metre (16ft) waves; and the Ocean Viking was wrongly stated to be owned by SOS Méditerranée.



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Venezuela’s mining region a hotbed of sex trafficking and violence, UN says | Global development

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Struggling to get by amid Venezuela’s runaway inflation, widespread shortages and rampant unemployment, a young woman left the city of San Félix for the promise of a job deep in the forests of Bolívar state.

The offer made on Facebook promised a good salary in exchange for working in a booming mining town.

Once there, however, she quickly realised she had been deceived. Rather than cooking, cutting hair and washing clothes, she was forced by armed men into selling her body to gold miners.

A landmark UN report on human rights abuses in Venezuela’s lawless mining arc has found evidence of widespread sex trafficking and violence against vulnerable women and children in the region. Many victims are lured to the mines with promises of work, and then pressured or forced into sex work.

“The situation in Bolívar state and other mining areas is deeply troubling,” said Patricia Tappatá Valdez, an author of the fact-finding report, which was presented in Geneva this week. “Local populations, including Indigenous peoples, are caught in the violent battle between state and armed criminal groups for the control of gold.”

As Venezuela’s economy has collapsed – forcing nearly 7 million to flee the country – President Nicolás Maduro has used state forces and paramilitary groups to clamp down on dissent and tighten his grip on power.

The gold-rich mining arc, where Colombian and Venezuelan armed groups war for control of its lucrative mines, has become a hotspot for human rights abuses.

Though the mining towns of Bolívar are sites of brutal massacres and are plagued with disease, UN investigators say that rumours proliferate in towns throughout Bolívar that the mines are the route to riches.

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Once lured to the region, economically vulnerable women and girls are enslaved by criminal groups who steal their documents or threaten them with violence, rape or public shaming.

While men typically have their hands or fingers cut off for breaking the gangs’ rules, the report found that women are publicly shamed. Sex workers had their hair shaved off or were publicly stripped as a form of humiliation for trying to escape.

One witness told the mission that in September 2021 she saw at least 30 women with scars around their mouths or their ears sliced off. Labelled “the discarded ones”, their faces were cut by the gangs so they would be less attractive to clients.

“Getting into the mines is very easy for women,” another interviewee told the researchers. “The problem is to get out of there in one piece.”

The report found that the region’s bloated military forces are complicit, ignoring sex trafficking, and in some cases were responsible for the human rights violations.

Researchers collected numerous reports of soldiers not allowing women to pass checkpoints unless they performed sexual favours.

The 70 case studies in the report offer a harrowing illustration of how corruption and impunity have left the country’s most vulnerable groups – women, children and Indigenous populations – open to abuse from state forces.

In return for parcelling off land to armed gangs, Maduro’s inner circle siphons off most of the profits from drugs, gold and sex work, said Cristina Burelli, founder of the advocacy group SOS Orinoco.

“These are not autocrats, these are criminals,” she said. “These armed groups and the political and military power structures are completely enmeshed.”

The anarchic forests of the Orinoco are dangerous for NGOs and journalists to access, which meant the mission could not fully document the scale of the egregious human rights violations, Marta Valiñas, chair of the fact-finding mission told the Guardian.

The UN’s fact-finding mission on Venezuela expires on Friday and a vote on whether to extend the mandate will probably take place next week.

“There’s a high risk that the dynamics of violence are not only perpetuated but actually start becoming normalised, while at the same time impunity and the context of lawlessness ensures that the violations continue, or even worsen, leaving the populations in those regions completely unprotected,” said Valiñas.

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Russia Vetoes UNSC Draft Resolution Rejecting Referendum Results in Former Ukraine Regions

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UNITED NATIONS (Sputnik) – Russia vetoed on Friday a UN Security Council draft resolution designed to condemn Moscow for incorporating four former Ukrainian regions.

Ten members voted in favor 10, one against and four others abstained.

“The draft resolution has not been adopted owing to the negative vote of a permanent member of the Council,” French Ambassador to the UN De Riviere said at a UN Security Council meeting.

France holds the presidency of the Council for September.

Ahead of the vote, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted that in the event of the resolution being vetoed, the matter would be taken to the 193-member General Assembly.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia earlier remarked that the US-Albanian draft resolution demonstrates the West’s refusal to engage and cooperate within the Council. He called the draft a “low-grade provocation with a goal that is clear to all.”

The Friday vote came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin held a speech before lawmakers in Moscow on the accession of the Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions.

“I would like everyone, including the authorities in Kiev and their real masters in the West, to hear me and remember that the people of [the four territories] are becoming our citizens. Forever,” Putin said. “We call on the Kiev regime to immediately cease fire, cease all hostilities – the war it unleashed in 2014 and return to the negotiating table. We are ready for this,” Putin said.

The Russian president also took the opportunity to call on Ukraine to respect the choices made by voters in favor of joining the Russian Federation, adding that Moscow would use all means to protect the newly independent territories.

The Kherson, Zaporozhye and the Donbass republics will officially become part of Russia once lawmakers finalize legislation on their incorporation, and is signed by Putin.



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Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s referendums: ‘Of course I didn’t vote, damn them!’ | International

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Constantin, a 28-year-old internet installer, decided he had had enough. On Tuesday, he packed his gray Lada 110 and its roof rack with everything he feasibly could, then put his brother, his wife, his son and his daughter in the car and drove away, leaving behind his home in Ivanivka, a Russian-occupied town in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. Tuesday was the last of five days during which Moscow had organized annexation referendums in the occupied zone and three other regions partially under the control of Russian troops to decide if those territories would become part of Russia. The Kremlin’s next step will be to impose mandatory enlistment from October 1 on men aged between 18 and 35, forcing them to fight in Russian uniform against Ukrainian forces defending their own country.

Constantin did not open the door of his home on Monday, when two armed men and a woman, a ballot box in her hand, went house to house to coerce residents into participating in the illegal vote. Neither does he intend to wear the uniform of his country’s enemy. The Kherson region has now been occupied for seven months and the ongoing war, which has resulted in insecurity, inflation and harsh living conditions, have now been brought to the doorsteps of residents suffering harassment in the face of the Kremlin’s designs. “I was scared,” Constantin admits, hours after arriving safely in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast of Ukraine.

Zaporizhzhia, capital of the eponymous region, is also playing host to officials of the Kyiv government who fled their municipalities after refusing to collaborate with the Russians. Moscow’s agenda “will not change our lives or those of our troops in any way. Berdyansk will remain Ukrainian. We will fight until victory”, says Viktor Tsukanov, the ousted head of the Berdyansk City Council. The 40-year-old, who served as mayor of the city before it was taken by Russian troops in February, plays down Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric. The Russian president plans to announce on Friday – unilaterally and without official backing from beyond Moscow – that the areas currently occupied by his soldiers in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson will become part of Russia.

Nevertheless, thousands of Ukrainian citizens in the occupied zone, like Constantin and his family, are not waiting for Putin’s pronouncement. Long lines of vehicles trying to reach unoccupied soil resemble those of Russians fleeing their country to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in Ukraine after Putin ordered a partial mobilization in Russia, the country’s first since World War II. To reach Zaporizhzhia, refugees first have to navigate Vasylivka, where hundreds of vehicles are backed up. As dozens of interviewees attest, it is a kind of border hell of draconian controls where Russian troops go out of their way to make passage difficult for the population they have supposedly come to rescue from the “Nazism” of the Kyiv government. Constantin says he was forced to strip to his underpants so that the soldiers could examine his tattoos, as he has several that are clearly visible. It is the occupiers’ method of detecting patriotic or nationalistic symbolism not to their liking, and as such an excuse to make an arrest. Other men consulted by this newspaper described similar experiences.

Ina, 24, is Constantin’s wife. She deals as best she can with Danil, their four-year-old boy, while carrying little Vladislava, nine months old, in her arms. The family has arrived at a transit center set up in an abandoned factory, where they ill remain until they find a place to settle. There are several of these halfway houses in Zaporizhzhia, where refugees are organized according to their place of origin. At one point during the interview, Constantin gets up to help the rest of the volunteers unload a truck that has arrived carrying aid.

Ina holds her daughter Vladislava in her arms at the transit center where she is sheltering with her husband and son.
Ina holds her daughter Vladislava in her arms at the transit center where she is sheltering with her husband and son.

His wife recalles the hours they spent in Vasylivka with dread. They even tried to elicit sympathy from the Russian soldiers by pretending Danil had a broken leg. The worst of the four controls was the second, Ina says. There, the car was turned inside out and all of the family’s electronic devices were confiscated, even Danil’s tablet. The soldiers scanned social networks, phone contacts and Google and YouTube history, finding something they didn’t like on Ina’s cell phone. “One of the soldiers went crazy and starting shouting aggressively, telling me to get out of the car,” Ina recalls. “Please, I am a mother with two children, one with a broken leg. Let me go on,” she implored. Then came a moment that almost saw them turned back, as had happened to four of the cars that were part of their convoy of 16 vehicles. The Russians became suspicious of Artem, Constantin’s brother, because he wasn’t carrying a phone. In the view of the soldiers, that meant he had something to hide. The nightmare of fleeing through Vasylivka finally ended when they passed the last checkpoint, “which was controlled by Chechens,” says Ina with evident relief.

Viktor Tsukanov and a group of municipal employees and volunteers from Berdyansk, a city in the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia region, celebrate a birthday at the offices where they help refugees
Viktor Tsukanov and a group of municipal employees and volunteers from Berdyansk, a city in the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia region, celebrate a birthday at the offices where they help refugeesLuis de Vega

Also at the makeshift refugee center is Sergei Tatarnikov, a 36-year-old who walks leaning on an old wooden crutch with his left leg bandaged. He was wounded by shrapnel during an attack on August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, which was also the the six-month anniversary of the invasion. He was evacuated from Orikhiv, a town the Russians have not yet managed to capture but which is under a permanent state of siege. “It’s a war zone,” says Tatarnikov, who estimates that only 5% of Orikhiv’s 50,000 inhabitants remain there.

In the same facility where the former inhabitants of Berdyansk are receiving help, Irina, 44, recalls how in Vasylivka the Russian troops humiliated them by mocking the use of “Slava Ukaine!” (Glory to Ukraine) that the locals would greet each other with. Another Irina, a 69-year-old nursery school teacher, watched as her neighbor opened the door during the referendum, which the international community has branded a “farce,” and was forced to drop in a ballot. She was accompanied on the bus journey by her son-in-law, Oleksei, 38, a newspaper advertising employee who lost his job because of the war and is also fleeing the Russian draft. He recounts bitterly how “many” acquaintances and former classmates are now collaborating with the occupiers.

A woman in the parking lot of a shopping center in Zaporizhzhia, converted into a reception area for people arriving from the occupied zone.
A woman in the parking lot of a shopping center in Zaporizhzhia, converted into a reception area for people arriving from the occupied zone. Luis de Vega

Night falls over the old Zaporizhzhia factory while dinner is distributed in the dining room provided by the NGO World Central Kitchen, led by the Spanish chef José Andres. Even at night the trickle of refugees arriving at the ten-storey high facility continues. Valentina, 65, a philologist with a doctorate in the Ukrainian language, managed to leave the city of Kherson by crossing the Dnieper River on a small ferry, one of few routes out after the bridge was bombed. Her group had to stop for two days in Vasylivka, where an old woman welcomed them into her home. “In Kherson most people are still with Ukraine. They are waiting for our army to arrive to liberate us”, says Valentina, a retiree who hopes that in Zaporizhzhia she will be able to recover her pension, which it is impossible to receive under the Russian occupying authorities. When she set out last Sunday, the ballot boxes of the illegal referendum were still being carried from house to house, with a military escort. “Only a few people opened the door to vote,” Valentina says, making it abundantly clear she was not one of them: “Of course I didn’t vote, damn them!”

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