As It Happens

Libyan woman who gave birth aboard migrant rescue ship 'doing well': midwife

Two ships, carrying more than 500 passengers rescued from the Mediterranean Sea, were granted permission to dock on Sunday. Last Wednesday, a pregnant Libyan woman who gave birth aboard the Geo Barents was flown to hospital in Sicily.

Hundreds disembarked from 2 vessels in Italy on Sunday

A baby boy named Ali is seen in this picture released by Doctors Without Borders on Dec. 7, 2022. The baby's mother, a Libyan woman, was flown to hospital in Sicily following the birth, along with her three other children. (Candida Lobes/Medecins Sans Frontieres/Reuters)

Hundreds of migrants have disembarked from two charity rescue boats in Italy amid ongoing tensions over how to handle refugees found at sea. 

"We're all a little tired [and] relieved that the survivors have been disembarked in a place of safety," said Kira Smith, a midwife onboard the Geo Barents, a vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders.

Two ships, carrying more than 500 passengers rescued from the Mediterranean Sea, were granted permission to dock on Sunday. The Geo Barents, carrying 248 passengers, arrived in Salermo, while SOS Humanity, carrying 261, docked in Bari. 

Last Wednesday, a pregnant Libyan woman who gave birth aboard the Geo Barents was flown by helicopter with her four children — the newborn baby, plus three others aged two, eight and 11 — to a hospital in Sicily where she remains under medical supervision. 

Police officers stand near the gate next to rescue ship Geo Barents, run by Doctors Without Borders, in the port of Catania on Nov. 7, 2022. At the time, Italian officials allowed the disembarkation of children and those who were ill. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)

The woman is "doing well," Smith noted, but she acknowledged that rescue vessels are not necessarily equipped to handle births. The stress and trauma that migrants face can also complicate pregnancies.

"Our survivors have had a really long and hard journey, and so they are not in the best condition physically. And then often what they're escaping has also left them not in the best health to begin with," Smith said.

"So this isn't someone who's … going into labour being prepared physically, mentally and emotionally."

Italy's recently elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her right-wing government have drawn a hardline on migrants entering the country by sea. In November, the government urged vessels to take rescued migrants to other countries.

After spending two weeks off the coast of Sicily, a vessel owned by aid group SOS Mediterranee disembarked 230 migrants in southern France last month, causing a rift between the two countries' governments

Reuters reports that the two vessels were granted permission to dock on Sunday because of poor weather conditions and not a change of policy.

"Saving lives will always guide the government's decisions, even with provocative and risky actions by NGOs," read a statement released this weekend by Italy's Interior Ministry.

A Doctors Without Borders rescue team approaches a rubber boat in the Mediterranean Sea with 74 migrants on board to transfer them to the Geo Barents on Dec. 4, 2022. (Candida Lobes/MSF/The Associated Press)

'We really are doing a service,' says rescue worker

The Italian government has accused charities operating the rescue vessels of making it easier for migrants to access Europe, and enriching human traffickers who profit from offering dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. 

Smith argues they're providing a lifeline.

"I don't see us as making the process easier. I see that we're saving lives," she said. "If you look at the numbers of how many attempts are made, how many deaths there are, we really are doing a service."

Migrants remaining on the rescue ship Geo Barents hold banners in November after Italian officials refused them to disembark. Italy's right-wing government has taken a hard-line stance on migrants attempting to enter the country by sea. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 141,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta by sea this year — the highest number since 2018. It's estimated that nearly 2,000 people have died or gone missing this year while attempting to reach Europe.

Speaking with CBC Radio's The Current last month, Till Rummenhohl, head of operations at German rescue organization SOS Humanity, accused governments, including Italy's, of using migrants as political pawns in a dispute over which country bears responsibility for those rescued at sea.

At the time, Italy said the flag-bearing country of rescue vessels bore the responsibility. Norway, the country of registration for ships run by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranee, disputed that.

"We urge, since six years, for the European Union to find a common solution for this. For sure, Italy cannot be left alone with this situation. But it's clear that we need to have a closest point to disembark these survivors of distressed cases at sea safely," Rummenhohl said.

Smith said she is ready to once again take to the sea onboard Geo Barents, and urged compassion for those being picked up.

"In the situation of the baby that was born, we're talking about a mother who, nine months pregnant, decided to take herself and her three children and embark on the deadliest migration route possible," she said.

"What she was fleeing, what she was leaving, was worse than the journey itself."

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Kira Smith produced by Brianna Gosse.