The European Union’s limited search and rescue resources contributed to the soaring death toll after four rubber dinghies carrying hundreds of migrants sent out an SOS in stormy weather in the southern Mediterranean last week, Amnesty International revealed today after a visit to Lampedusa.
Following the tragedy that claimed more than 300 lives, an Amnesty International research team carried out interviews, in Rome and Lampedusa, with survivors, members of the Italian coast guard and local authorities.
When the distress call came in on Sunday 8 February, the main vessel used in the pan-EU border management operation Triton was docked hundreds of kilometres away in Malta for maintenance. The large military vessels used in Italy’s now-defunct Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation were also out of use and docked even farther away in Sicily.
“Italian coast guard officials responded admirably and with exceptional personal courage to the SOS call, putting in long hours amid incredibly treacherous conditions at sea. It’s impossible to know how many lives they could have saved with better resources, but the death toll would likely be lower,” said Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty International’s Italy Campaigner, who just returned from Lampedusa.
“Unless the void of Italy’s now defunct lifesaving Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation is filled, refugees and migrants will continue to die in great numbers at sea.”
“It’s a simple equation – as the number of people taking this perilous sea route goes up and the resources put into search and rescue go down, more people will die,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
Departures of refugees and migrants surged over the weekend, and will continue to do so as Libya descends deeper into violence. The Italian coast guard confirmed that Italian authorities and merchant vessels rescued a total of more than 2,800 people in at least 18 boats between Friday 13 and Sunday 15 February. On Sunday 15 February alone, 2,225 people were rescued from a dozen boats.
This comes just a week after at least 300 deaths at sea as four other boats attempted the crossing from Libya to Italy in stormy weather. Amnesty International spoke to some of the survivors of that tragedy.
Departure from Libya
According to survivors’ testimonies, 400 migrants in all, most of them young men from West Africa, were attempting to travel across the Mediterranean in four boats from Libya when they ran into trouble last Sunday 8 February.
People smugglers had kept them near Tripoli to await the journey after charging them the equivalent of around 650 euros. On the evening of Saturday 7 February, the armed people smugglers brought the migrants to the Libyan port town of Garabouli, 40 km west of Tripoli, and made them board four inflatable dinghies.
Early the next day, as the boats drifted in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, it was clear that they were in serious danger.
Italian coast guard officials told Amnesty International they received a satellite phone call for help early in the afternoon on 8 February, from a location 120 nautical miles (222 km) south of Lampedusa and 40 nautical miles (74 km) north of Libya. The call was mostly unintelligible but the officials could make out the words “dangerous, dangerous” in English.
Coast guard officials stressed that, under the circumstances, the migrants were sailing to their almost certain death. The weather forecast in that part of the Mediterranean was bad for the entire week. The boats were powered by small outboard motors, and the people smugglers apparently had not provided enough petrol for the trip.
According to survivor accounts, more than 300 people perished. The migrants, many of whom were scantily clothed, were exposed to extreme weather conditions for up to two days, including near-freezing temperatures, rain and even hail as their boats were at times tossed about on waves of up to eight metres.
Italian coast guard responders managed to rescue 105 people from one dinghy at 9pm on Sunday, but 29 of those died of hypothermia and other causes after the rescue. Two merchant vessels in the area rescued nine remaining survivors from two other boats. Survivors confirmed that there were four dinghies in total, which were numbered 1-4. One boat is still missing.
Amnesty International spoke to Ibrahim, a 24-year-old man from Mali who was one of only two survivors in his dinghy: “[At around 7pm on] Sunday the boat started to lose air and to fill with water. People began to fall into the sea. At each wave, two or three were taken away. The front part of the boat rose, so people on the back fell in the sea. At that point, only about 30 people remained on the boat. One side of the boat … stayed afloat …and [we clung to a rope as we had] water up to our belly. [Eventually] only four of us remained. We kept holding on, together, all night. It was raining. At sunrise, two slipped away. During the morning we saw a helicopter. There was a red shirt in the water; I shook it so they would see me. They threw a small inflatable boat, but I didn’t have the energy to reach it. So we stayed, holding on. Half an hour later, a cargo boat arrived. It threw a rope to get us onboard. It was about 3 in the afternoon [on 9 February].”
Lamin, also from Mali, was on board the other dinghy approached by a merchant vessel: “We were 107 [on board]. In the high seas, the waves were taking the boat up and down. Everyone was afraid. I saw three people falling in the water. No one could help. They tried to catch the boat but couldn’t. Then many others died, maybe for lack of food or water. I can’t count how many died. When a big, commercial boat came to rescue us, only seven of us were [left]. The rescuers threw a rope and got us onboard. During the rescue, [our] boat folded in two and went down, taking down all the bodies.”
The Italian coast guard responded to the SOS call on 8 February by sending a search aircraft and four patrol boats – two of them were dispatched immediately, followed by two more after one of the initial boats had an engine problem.
The head of the Italian coast guard’s rescue operation centre was frank about the limited resources at their disposal: “Can you imagine what it means to cover that distance in an 18-metre boat with waves as high as eight or nine metres? We feared for the lives of our crew… When departures pick up after the winter, we won’t be able to take them all, if we remain the only one to go out there.”
Urgent need for action
Lampedusa residents and officials are reeling after the latest in a long series of sea tragedies to befall their island.
Mayor Giusi Nicolinini told Amnesty International: “When the dead arrive, one feels defeated. One wonders why nothing ever changes. Europe is completely absent – one does not need to be an expert in politics to understand that.”
Amnesty International is urging EU countries to provide collective and concerted search and rescue operations along routes taken by migrants, to at least the same level as Mare Nostrum. In the meantime, the organisation is urging Italy to provide additional emergency resources until this happens.
Many of those rescued after last week’s tragedy are from Côte d’Ivoire (41 – including two children) followed by Mali (23, including a child), Senegal (nine), Guinea (seven), Gambia (two) and Niger (two). Ivorians also reportedly account for more than half of the confirmed fatalities among those rescued – 15 out of the 29, along with seven men from Mali, five Senegalese and one each from Guinea and Mauritania.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it expects the trend of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to continue in 2015. Some 218,000 crossed in 2014, and the numbers for January 2015 already show a 60% increase in incoming migrants registered in Italy compared to January 2014. There were close to 3,500 recorded deaths last year, making it the deadliest sea crossing in the world.