ABOARD THE ASTRAL (Italy) (AFP) - The horror, terror and joy felt during perilous rescues of migrant boats were captured in powerful new images published Wednesday, as the latest deadly episode in the Mediterranean fuelled calls for Europe to change tack on the crisis.
AFP photographer Aris Messinis was on board Spanish NGO boat The Astral as it battled to help a number of overcrowded rubber dinghies and a larger wooden vessel found in distress off the coast of Libya in a frantic operation that lasted from dawn until after dusk on Tuesday.
Almost 1,000 mainly African migrants were hauled to safety but 32 died as a result of toxic fumes or in the crush of too many bodies: 29 of them on one of the dinghies.
Gerard Canals, the Astral's mission chief, told AFP the disaster could easily have been much worse as his relatively small boat was the only one in the area for all of Tuesday morning, having been first alerted to the distressed boats by the Libyan coastguard.
"It was a 19-hour rescue operation and after all that to have 'only' 32 people dead is something we can be almost proud of," he said.
"If the big wooden boat had capsized, we could have taken 200 on board and the (hundreds of) others would all have drowned," he told AFP from the boat on Wednesday.
Italian navy and coastguard boats did not get to the scene until after midday.
Canals said he had not seen what happened on the dinghy but that it appeared there had been a panic which caused a crush and led to some people fainting or being knocked to the floor, where they were trampled on.
The Astral was sailing north tugging a liferaft containing the corpses with a view to transferring them to the Italian coastguard.
Messinis's images capture the extreme range of emotions produced by the drama.
Among the most striking is the hauntingly poignant respect shown by the survivors as they tiptoe over lifeless bodies on their own way to safety.
In the water, an African man clings desperately to a float thrown in by the rescuers and stretches his leg out as if he were trying to help a fellow passenger floundering helplessly a yard (metre) away from him. Or could he have been seeking to push him away?
- Baby boom -
Other images reveal that there were many small children on board the boats; one is crying, perhaps sensing the prevailing sense of fear, others seem totally carefree, oblivious to the panic, including one hoisted above the crush of the crowd.
William Lacy Swing, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 3,500 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year showed Europe needed to do something different.
"That is more than all of last year and last year was more than 2014, so clearly our policies are not working as they should be or you wouldn't have that many people who are dying," he told AFP.
Four women who were among the rescued in other operations gave birth on their way to Italian ports.
The number of pregnant women boarding migrant boats in Libya has increased significantly this year and it is not uncommon for them to go into labour as soon as they reach the safety of a rescue boat.
The 10,600 new arrivals will raise to more than 140,000 the total number of migrants or refugees to have landed in Italy since the start of this year.
The numbers are in line with the previous two years but Italy is now having to register and accommodate a bigger proportion of them under pressure from its EU partners, putting immense strain on its overcrowded reception centres and government coffers.