The baby, who appears to be no more than a year old, was pulled from the sea on Friday after the capsizing of a wooden boat. Forty-five bodies arrived in the southern Italian port of Reggio Calabria on Sunday aboard an Italian navy ship, which picked up 135 survivors from the same incident.
German humanitarian organization Sea-Watch, operating a rescue boat in the sea between Libya and Italy, distributed the picture taken by a media production company on board and which showed a rescuer cradling the child like a sleeping baby.
In an email, the rescuer, who gave his name as Martin but did not want his family name published, said he had spotted the baby in the water “like a doll, arms outstretched”.
“I took hold of the forearm of the baby and pulled the light body protectively into my arms at once, as if it were still alive … It held out its arms with tiny fingers into the air, the sun shone into its bright, friendly but motionless eyes.”
The rescuer, a father of three and by profession a music therapist, added: “I began to sing to comfort myself and to give some kind of expression to this incomprehensible, heart-rending moment. Just six hours ago this child was alive.”
Like the photograph of the three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan lying lifeless on a Turkish beach last year, the image puts a human face on the more than 8,000 people who have died in the Mediterranean since the start of 2014.
Little is known about the child, who according to Sea-Watch was immediately handed over to the Italian navy. Rescuers could not confirm whether the partially clothed infant was a boy or a girl and it is not known whether the child’s mother or father are among the survivors.
Sea-Watch collected about 25 other bodies, including another child, according to testimony from the crew seen by Reuters. The Sea-Watch team said it unanimously decided to publish the photo.
“In the wake of the disastrous events it becomes obvious to the organizations on the ground that the calls by EU politicians to avoid further death at sea sum up to nothing more than lip service,” Sea-Watch said in a statement in English distributed along with the photograph.
“If we do not want to see such pictures we have to stop producing them,” Sea-Watch said, calling for Europe to allow migrants safe and legal passage as a way of shutting down people smuggling and further tragedies.
At least 700 migrants may have died at sea this past week in the busiest week of migrant crossings from Libya towards Italy this year, the UN Refugee agency said on Sunday.
The boat carrying the baby left the shores of Libya near Sabratha late on Thursday, and then began to take on water, according to accounts by survivors collected by Save the Children on Sunday. Hundreds were on board when it capsized, the survivors said.