VALLETTA, Malta – The 50-foot (15-meter) wooden boat drifted across the Mediterranean for five days without food and water after its engine died, unable to propel the 117 people crammed aboard from war in Libya to safety in Europe.
More than once, boats passed within sight, a survivor told The Associated Press: a container ship, a fishing boat, then two big ships, including one that shone a spotlight on the crippled boat. A plane flew overhead.
Still, help did not arrive until the tenth day. By then, a pregnant woman had died after trying to quench her thirst with sea water.
"A lot of people saw our ship. Fishermen, a ship with containers. We even saw a plane in the sky," said Faith Osarnehkoe, a Nigerian who was one of the 116 immigrants rescued by Maltese sailors and the sister of the woman who died.
Reports of migrant boats lost and adrift for days without receiving aid are raising alarm. The U.N. refugee agency has called for better monitoring of the seas for the overcrowded boats and more aggressive intervention.
"The journey is much more dangerous than in the past. We consider each boat leaving Libya in this circumstance is a boat at risk, and should be rescued right away," said Laura Boldrini, the U.N. refugee spokesman based in Rome.
The boat was just one of dozens laden with sub-Saharans who had found work in Libya, then lost their jobs and feared for their lives as Moammar Gadhafi's forces launched fierce attacks to stay in power. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has accused the Gadhafi regime of forcing the migrants into Europe as a way to punish former allies like Italy for joining the NATO campaign against him.
In the last seven weeks, ever-larger, more decrepit boats carrying hundreds of passengers have tried the dangerous crossing.
Osarnehkoe and her sister had been working as hairdressers when they decided to flee. "I wanted to save my dear life," Osarnehkoe told the AP during a rare visit by a foreign journalist to a locked migrant center at a military base on the island nation of Malta.
Osarnehkoe is certain that at least two ships saw the boatload of migrants waving wildly at them. One, on the night before their rescue, even shone a spotlight on them.
"If they didn't see us, they wouldn't have shone the lights on us. Everyone was shouting, 'We need help!' Nobody helped," she said.
After the ship turned off the light and sped away, Osarnehkoe's sister Tina Aeyie, 27, died.
The UNHCR's call to rescue all migrant boats heading north from Libya is complicated by several factors.
A complex search-and-rescue grid governs the Mediterranean and is often the source of tension between Italy, which is bearing the brunt of the arrivals, and Malta, whose enormous search-and-rescue area comes very close to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
More and more often, the migrant boats are traveling with satellite phones, but not all service providers are able to trace a location at sea, and the phones often run out of power.
Malta's Minister for Justice and Home Affairs, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, said authorities were looking into the reports — which are similar to another case involving a ship with 72 migrants that reportedly encountered military vessels that did not offer help, first reported by the Guardian newspaper. All but nine people on that boat died.
Malta, however, disagrees that all boats leaving Libya need to be rescued.
"They have the right of passage and nobody can stop them, not even our forces or a NATO ship," Bonnici said in an interview. "As long as they are not in distress, then it is no issue."
Bonnici said the refugees from Libya are economically better off than previous waves, many arriving with suitcases. And more than ever, entire families are making the sea voyage, making up one-quarter of Malta's recent arrivals.
"The people who are coming here are people who were well-placed in Libya, who were working there. They have university graduates. They come with their families. They are definitely people who are escaping civil war," Bonnici said.
The bigger boats, ranging from 20-feet (6 meters) long and upward, compared to the rickety 10-foot (3 meter) boats of previous migrant waves, give the new refugees a greater chance of completing the journey, naval experts say. But by cramming so many on board, there is a greater chance the boats might sink or capsize.
In all, nearly 12,500 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya have arrived since in Italy since the end of March and another 1,107 in Malta, an accidental destination for most, carried by wind and current. The Italian arrivals included some eight boats with an estimated 1,300 people on Friday.
"The migrants will keep coming until there is stability in Libya," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurzio Massari.
There have been hundreds of confirmed deaths since the exodus from Libya began, including 250 who drown off the Italian coast on April 6. Witnesses reported another ship carrying 600 broke apart and sank near the Libyan capital of Tripoli on May 6, the death toll unknown. And the UNHCR says 480 people were on two boats that left Tripoli weeks ago and never made it to Europe, raising fears that all on board are dead. The Guardian newspaper reported 61 died on another ship that ended up back in Tripoli after drifting for days, reportedly receiving help from an unidentified helicopter but allegedly ignored by a military vessel. NATO insists it had no contact with that ship.
Malta, one of Europe's tiniest and southernmost states, is struggling to deal with the new arrivals. The country of 400,000 currently hosts up to 5,000 migrants — most of those from previous waves — and has the highest number of asylum applicants per capita in Europe, 6,000 per million, officials said.
Most migrants live in locked centers for the first months. Then, after their case has been heard, they are allowed to move into open centers, even if their refugee status has been rejected.
The idea is that they stay for 18 months — but the reality is that many have been there for up to five years. Many who arrived between 2002-2008 are unskilled but still have their sights set on Europe and do little to integrate, officials say.
The United States has taken about 600 refugees through a resettlement program, and several European countries took another 250 last year. Bonnici was in Brussels recently urging Europe to accept more of the migrants.
"Everybody recognizes that this small country is not in a position to absorb these people and integrate these people and give these people a future," Bonnici said.
Inside the locked refugee center, the West Africans clamored for freedom, for the possibility to work and to unite with their families. Osarnehkoe, who made it to Malta with her husband Lucky Osagie, a barber, misses their two sons back in Nigeria, aged 13 and 8.
A 3-year-old boy named Daniel who survived the sea journey danced on a table.
"We want freedom, we want freedom," he chanted.