Authorities in Italy, Malta and Libya did not react quickly, if at all, to the wreck of a migrant boat last month that left more than 100 people dead, according to a new analysis.
Reviewing logs and emails from the Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants in transit in distress, and the non-governmental organization SOS Mediterranée, the Associated Press found that urgent calls for help were not sufficiently answered.
Up to 130 people, mainly from African countries, are believed to have died in the shipwreck between April 21 and 22 while awaiting rescue, approximately 45 kilometers off the Libyan coast.
Passengers on board had made desperate calls for help, claiming that the boat they were in had run out of fuel and was filling with water.
For most, that relief never came, however, as the shipwreck became the deadliest in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year.
Slow response to emergency calls
Rescue and coordination centers in Libya, Italy and Malta had been initially alerted by Alarm Phone of the ship’s need for urgent assistance at 9.52am Central European Summer Time on April 21, according to AP.
Both Alarm Phone and SOS Mediterranée said they never received a response from the Maltese authorities, with the Maltese Armed Forces, which oversee maritime search and rescue operations, apparently ignoring several requests for comment from the AP.
Italian authorities reportedly responded to the call for help at 2.11pm, more than four hours later, asking the Alarm Phone to inform the “competent authorities” without explaining exactly who should be contacted.
The Italian coast guard later told the AP that the event had taken place “in Libya’s search and rescue area of responsibility.”
Therefore, the coast guard said, “the Libyan authorities took over the coordination of the event.”
US counterparts blamed
The Alarm Phone only managed to contact a Libyan official five hours after sending its first alert at 2:44 p.m.
The organization was informed that the Libyan coast guard was looking for three ships in the area, but only used one ship, the Ubari, to do so.
A day after the shipwreck, Libyan coast guard spokesman Masoud Ibrahim Masoud told the AP that his agency had located 106 migrants and two bodies from two other ships.
However, due to the worsening weather and concerns for the health of the people who were found, he said the workers decided to return to the port before trying to locate the third ship.
Masoud also blamed his EU counterparts, stating that Libya had not received sufficient support from the bloc.
Frontex, which patrols the Mediterranean by air, however, told the AP it had deployed two planes after Italian authorities asked it to do so.
An aircraft deployed on April 21 detected the ship in distress and another was also on the scene the following day.
“Frontex did exactly what it had to do and beyond,” agency spokesman Chris Borowski told the AP on April 24. rescue, and we stayed there as long as we could. “
However, SOS Mediterranée has alleged that Frontex’s emergency message was only delivered at 7.15pm, more than nine hours after authorities in Libya, Italy and Malta were alerted to the crisis.
‘Worst fear’ confirmed
On April 22, The SOS Méditerranée’s ship, Ocean Viking, as well as several merchant ships, made their way to the site, but found no survivors, only bodies.
In a statement that day, Luisa Albera, the Ocean Viking search and rescue coordinator, said that after hours of searching “in the absence of effective state coordination,” her organization’s “worst fear” had come true.
“The crew of the Ocean Viking had to witness the devastating consequences of the wreck of a rubber boat northeast of Tripoli,” he said.
“We are heartbroken. We think about the lives that have been lost and the families who may never be certain what happened to their loved ones.”
‘States abandon their responsibility’
Albera said the tragic loss of life was “the reality in the central Mediterranean: more than 350 people have already lost their lives in this stretch of sea this year, not counting the dozens who perished in the shipwreck.”
“States abandon their responsibility to coordinate search and rescue operations, leaving private actors and civil society to fill the deadly void they leave behind. We can see the result of this deliberate inaction in the sea around our ship,” he said .
Indeed, the AP’s findings come as Europe faces scrutiny for its repeated failure to rescue migrants at sea, leaving the job in the hands of the Libyan coast guard, despite its limited resources and poor the country’s human rights record.
Legal experts consulted by the AP told the news agency that the apparent refusal to provide rescue support in the April incident could be “constitutive of a violation” under international law.
“The way in which each of the European actors got in contact … tried to divert or ignore responsibility may constitute a violation by omission of the relevant obligations of international law”, Violeta Moreno-Lax, founder of the program of immigration law at Queen Mary University of London, he explained.
While the April incident may represent the largest loss of life in the Mediterranean so far this year, it is certainly not the latest shipwreck to unfold off the coast of Libya.
‘We need a safe passage’
On Sunday, at least 11 migrants after a rubber boat capsized off the coast of Zawya, Libya, and 12 survivors were rescued by the country’s coast guard.
In response to the incident, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) called for an “urgent change in approach” to the situation in Libya and the central Mediterranean.
Otherwise, the organization suggested, the “continued loss of life” will continue.
The warning comes when a rescue ship carrying 455 migrants docked in Sicily after receiving permission from Italian authorities, as Euronews reported today.
Unaccompanied minors were able to disembark from the ship after being screened for COVID-19 and were being transferred to a dedicated reception center, rescue organization Sea-Watch said.
As Sea-Watch celebrated the rescue, the organization said in a Twitter statement that it remains “concerned about the increase in the death toll in the Mediterranean.”
“More than twice as many people have drowned this year than in the same period in 2020. We need #SafePassage!” the organization said, calling for a change in regulations that would allow migrants and asylum seekers to cross the Mediterranean into Europe through safe and legal means.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism