NZer tells of 'mass panic' as she rescued refugees

7:54 am on 8 September 2016

A New Zealand aid worker who helped rescue 351 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea two days ago says many risk being sent back to where they came from.

New Zealander Rosemarie North, who works for the Red Cross, said they were notified two days ago of a big rubber dinghy that was highly overloaded, just outside Libyan waters.

The Responder rescue ship was despatched to the scene and found 134 people on one rubber boat, trying to reach Italy from Libya.

Ms North, who was on board the rescue boat with other Red Cross personnel from Italy and Switzerland, said it was an eerie sight.

"It was utterly chilling to see this dinghy in the searchlight before dawn, to see all these people straddling these inflated tubes. It was utterly unsafe and what was even more horrifying was that people knew they were in danger and they held up babies into the air."

She said the search and rescue team noticed a "terrible smell" coming from the boat when they came close to it.

"It had high-octane fuel on it and they were becoming intoxicated and some of them were fainting and falling into the water, and people started panicking. And part of the boat was damaged and people fell into the water, there was mass panic, and from then on it was just a race to get as many people onto the rescue vessel as possible."

Seven people died during the rescue operation, but Ms North said the young children on board all survived the trip.

The rescue ship also took on board passengers from four other vessels, which she described as "death-traps", on the same day, ultimately bringing 351 people to safety.

Ms North told Morning Report the migrants had travelled as far as Bangladesh, only to risk being turned back once they reached Italy, almost 10,000km from home.

"You could go all this way only to be turned back. People don't realise a lot of things, they don't realise how dangerous the journey is, they don't realise how wide the Mediterranean is, and how dangerous it is. They think they're almost there, and they've only just left Libya. They're astounded when it takes us 36 hours to sail to Italy."

The Red Cross has called on world leaders to "end the indifference to needless drownings" and take action to save lives.

Last year more than one million refugees and migrants - many fleeing the civil war in Syria - arrived in Europe, sparking a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the influx, and creating division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling people.

In March, the EU struck a deal with Turkey to try to stop new arrivals crossing from Turkey to Greece while Balkan nations closed their borders, moves that have reduced the number of arrivals using the so-called eastern Mediterranean route.

A crew member on the Responder with a young refugee rescued from an overloaded boat on the Mediterranean.

A crew member on the Responder with a young refugee rescued from an overloaded boat on the Mediterranean in an operation last month. Photo: AFP

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