The mood aboard the boats had gone from hope to horrific tragedy. After hundreds of migrants left the north coast of Libya earlier this week in a large wooden boat and several smaller rubber crafts, they made it just 12 miles offshore before rescuers rushed to find the boats crowded, some five times beyond their capacity. And among the crowds, 32 dead bodies.
Aris Messinis, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, was aboard the rescue boat. When he and rescuers from Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish aid organization, came upon the scene, many of the migrants began to shout frantically. Some jumped into the water.
"We tried to calm them down. We tried to tie their boat and drag it closer to the area where the rescue operations were happening," says Messinis. "We were shouting, 'Don't jump, don't jump!' They were very panicked."
Both 2015 and 2016 have seen steep rises in migrations of refugees fleeing from unstable humanitarian and political conditions in Africa and the Middle East. Last year, more than a million refugees left ports in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Turkey to travel by sea to seek refuge in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The number of arrivals by sea has dropped in 2016 to roughly 300,000, but the numbers remain higher than historical averages. In all, over the past 20 months, the UN Refugee Agency has declared 3,521 people dead or missing while attempting Mediterranean crossings.
The scene on Tuesday off the coast of Libya—an area where political instability has made it a common embarkation point for refugees—started hopeful, with a stretch of good weather. But by the time rescuers had secured the boats, nearly three dozen refugees had died, either from drowning or asphyxiation in such crowded conditions.
Messinis compared the condition of overpacked boats to overcrowded slave ships that left Africa hundreds of years ago. Yet despite the migrant boats being in a different century and under a different context, he found the scene no less awful. "It's not the first time this has happened," he says, "and I think it probably won't be the last."