Rights groups have expressed increasing concern about the obstruction of their work helping migrants in distress during the perilous Mediterranean crossing

Rome (AFP) - A rights group called Wednesday for an international criminal investigation after 15 migrants died following 11 days drifting off the coast of Libya without food, water, or help.

The protest came as NGOs expressed growing concern about the plight of migrants attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing and accused officials in several countries of blocking aid efforts.

In a tweet, Claus-Peter Reisch, founder of the German group Mission Lifeline, accused EU agencies Frontex and Eunavfor Med, which police the EU bloc’s border and coastguard activities, of “crimes against humanity” and called on “the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate”.

Axel Steier, a spokesman for the group, told AFP both agencies “have military vessels, satellites, reconnaissance planes covering all of this zone.

“They had the means to see that these refugees were in distress. But they did nothing, they left them to die,” he added.

“That’s called a crime.”

A group of 25 migrants left Sabratha, 70 kilometres (44 miles) west of Tripoli, in a bid to reach the Italian coast, said the Libyan Red Cross.

But the currents caused them to float offshore in a rubber boat for 11 days without food or water, capsizing off Misrata, 270 kilometres further east, and washing up on a beach Monday evening.

There were only 10 survivors, including two women.

All of suffered from “complete dehydration and exhaustion”, said Dr Mohamed Abughalia of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

They also suffered “trauma, severe malnutrition and burns sustained from the boat’s engine fuel” and four required emergency medical care, he added.

- Saving lives should be priority -

The IOM’s Libyan head of mission, Othman Belbeisi, expressed concern about the lack of search and rescue capacity for migrants attempting the sea crossing, especially with winter approaching.

“Saving lives at sea should be the number one priority, and search and rescue operations clearly need to be reinforced,” he said in a statement.

Others aid agencies also denounced the lack of help for migrants attempting the perilous crossing to Europe.

Several groups working to save migrants in distress as they try to cross the Mediterranean have complained of a lack of support from European countries

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) tweeted of “increasingly alarming” reports confirming its own observations: “search & #rescue capacity is insufficient, and boats in distress are being ignored or refused help”.

“During this time, civilian rescue vessels are prevented from carrying out their mission by targeted political attacks,” said a statement from French migrant rights group SOS Mediterranee.

The Aquarius rescue vessel it runs jointly with MSF is stuck in the French port of Marseille after Bahrain revoked the ship’s flag rights, which means it cannot set sail legally.

Mission Lifeline’s main vessel, Lifeline, is itself stranded at the Maltese port of Valetta, also for legal reasons.

According to figures released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Tuesday, 1,285 people have died trying to cross the central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, despite a significant drop in the numbers attempting the crossing.