A nine-month investigation by the Council of Europe has unearthed the failings which led to a refugee boat’s distress calls being ignored for four days last year. All but nine of the 72 people on board died from thirst and starvation or in storms, including two babies. Two more died soon after reaching land.
The investigation found errors by military and commercial vessels sailing nearby, plus ambiguity in the coastguards’ distress calls and confusion about which authorities were responsible for mounting a rescue. This was compounded by a long-term lack of planning by the UN, Nato and European nations over the inevitable increase in refugees fleeing north Africa during the international intervention in Libya.
The report’s author, Tineke Strik described the tragedy as “a dark day for Europe.” It says that NATO and its member states did not cooperate fully with the council’s investigation.
“Many opportunities for saving the lives of the persons on board the boat were lost,” it states. Those who died “could have been rescued if all those involved had complied with their obligations.” The report calls for an overhaul of search-and-rescue procedures in the Mediterranean and for NATO and its individual member states to hold their own inquiries into the incident and allow the full facts to come to light.
Survivors claimed that a military helicopter briefly flew over, offering them food and water and motioning at them to remain in place only to then fly off and never return.
On the 10th day of their ordeal, they say they drifted up to a large military vessel – so close that the survivors claim those on board were photographing them from the deck as they held up the dead babies and empty fuel tanks in a desperate appeal for assistance. That ship has not been definitively identified but the report concludes that it must have been under the command of NATO.
Survivor, Ethiopian Abu Kurke Kebato, now in The Netherlands, said:
“Every night I can see exactly what’s happening once again, the hunger, the thirst, the falling [dying]. These powers, they knew we needed help and they did nothing. They must face justice.”
“The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seas on the planet, yet somehow nobody managed to rescue these migrants. We need more answers and I will continue to look for them. These people did not need to die and those responsible have to be called to account.”
“This is only the beginning, and in the long run there is no doubt that if more evidence is gathered the question may arise about whether a crime has been committed here.”
UNHCR reported recently that 1,500 people “drowned or went missing in 2011 while attempting crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.” The actual number may be even higher; a spokesperson for the agency noted:
“Our estimates are based on interviews with people who reached Europe on boats, telephone calls and e-mails from relatives, as well as reports from Libya and Tunisia from survivors whose boats either sank or were in distress in the early stages of the journey.”
“When you think about the media attention focused on the [Costa] Concordia and then compare it to the more than 1,500 migrant lives lost in the Mediterranean in 2011, the difference is striking,” Strik said.
Image Fortress Europe screengrab