Central Mediterranean

At least 130 dead after boat no government wanted to rescue sinks

The boat was adrift for 48 hours, but despite being located by an NGO, neither Libya, Malta, Italy nor Frontex responded to the SOS

4 min
The ship located dozens of corpses at sea, at the site of the alert

At least 130 people died on Thursday in a shipwreck on the route between Libya and Italy, in the central Mediterranean, when the inflatable boat in which they were trying to reach Europe sank. For 48 hours, and in the middle of a storm with waves up to six meters high, an NGO had followed the boat and reported its position to the European authorities, but no official maritime rescue service went to their rescue. The humanitarian ship Ocean Viking of French organisation SOS Mediterranée, immediately rushed to the rescue along with three merchant ships, but it was too late and they were only able to recover 13 bodies. There is no news of another skiff with 42 people on board that issued its last message yesterday at noon.

"Our worst fears came true, after hours and hours of searching. The crew has come across the devastating scene of the wreck of a dinghy northeast of Tripoli. We are devastated. We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who may never know for sure what happened to their loved ones," said Luisa Abrera, coordinator on board the Ocean Viking.

Remains of the sunk boat found by 'Ocean Viking' in the central Mediterranean

Alarm Phone, which provides telephone assistance to boats in distress in the Mediterranean, has denounced that "these people could have been rescued, but all the authorities decided to abandon them to die at sea. The organisation received the warning on Tuesday morning and was in contact with the boat for ten hours. But there was no response from any of the three governments involved: neither Libya, nor Malta, nor Italy were involved in coordinating the rescue.

For the first time in many years three merchant ships joined the Ocean Viking in search of the missing. But Rome, Valletta and Tripoli were busy passing the bucket. A Frontex plane patrolling the area also approached, but no warning message was issued and the Libyan coastguard, after intervening to intercept a boat with a hundred people, did not send any of the available patrol boats to search for the other two drifting vessels.

A live shipwreck

According to Alarm Phone's account, on Wednesday morning a fisherman warned them there was a boat in distress off the coast of Libya, and alerted the Maltese, Italian and Libyan authorities as well as NGO rescue boats and vessels in the area. A few hours later they were able to contact the boat - the traffickers give the castaways a satellite phone, because otherwise it would be a suicide mission - and informed them that there were 130 people on board (including seven women, one pregnant) who had left the port of Al-Khums the night before, and that the sea conditions were very difficult. "In the hours that followed we kept in contact with the people on the boat and saw how the situation was deteriorating, and we kept warning everyone," explains Alarm Phone in a statement. The entity explains that it contacted a merchant ship, the Morena, which was in the area, but it decided to continue on its way. At 2.11 p.m. they contacted the rescue centre in Rome, which referred them to the "competent authorities", supposedly the Libyan coastguard, who had not responded for hours. At half past two, Tripoli told them that they knew the location of the three boats and that they had sent a patrol boat. Throughout the afternoon Alarm Phone continued in contact with the boat and updated its position three times by email to all the actors. After seven in the evening the castaways explained that they had seen a plane, which could have been the one flown by Frontex. They continued to insist on a rescue until at 10.22pm the Libyan coastguard announced that they would not attempt the rescue due to bad weather conditions. Another night passed without anyone coming to the position where the boat was, and Alarm Phone continued to insist with Italian authorities and Frontex, which limited itself to resending "its message to the Italian and Maltese authorities". There was a web of communications and bureaucratic responses while more than a hundred people were struggling between life and death in an inflatable boat in the middle of a storm. When by the next afternoon the Ocean Viking and three merchant ships -My Rose, Alk y Lisbeth- arrived on the scene it was too late

"It was like watching a shipwreck live: we were in contact with them every five minutes, we heard them calling, sometimes they could send us their GPS location and we informed everyone. All the authorities knew where they were. The Frontex plane saw them and also reported them, but the Libyans did not respond and the Europeans told us it was Libya's responsibility. We have ten emergency telephone numbers for the Libyan coastguard, but they always take hours to answer. And what we see is that they only act when a boat approaches Europe, if it doesn't move they don't care, they let them die," Alarm Phone sources explain to ARA. "What there is is a mechanism to intercept boats, not to save lives at sea," he denounces. The same sources recognise that it will be complicated to initiate legal action without survivors.

Nor does it explain why the Libyan coast guard, armed and trained by the EU, did not rescue the shipwrecked boat if it was only five miles from another that they did intercept (the shipwrecked explained to Alarm Phone the boats left the port of Al-Khums on Tuesday night together). The IOM reported that a woman and a child had died in this rescue.

"A boat like this can sink in 2 or 3 minutes. They spent 48 hours in the water and knowing where they were no government did anything. It's unacceptable," Flavio di Giacomo, spokesman for the Mediterranean for the International Organisation for Migration, tells ARA. "We will never know for sure how many people were on it and how many people died. And we don't know anything about the third boat," he adds. Di Giacomo denounces that the European strategy is limited to trusting "that the Libyan coast guard will intercept everyone", when we know that in Libya human rights violations are widespread.

According to UN estimates, the Libyan authorities have intercepted more than 6,000 people at sea this year, who have been forcibly returned to centres where it has been amply demonstrated human rights are violated. "Human rights must also be respected outside European borders," said Di Giacomo, who recalled that this year at least 359 people have already died in the central Mediterranean, where there is "a humanitarian emergency". On the other hand, European states no longer have any argument to justify the fact that the arrival of migrants is overwhelming them: this year 8,500 people have arrived in Italy by sea, and just over 7,000 in Spain.