Italy, Malta & Libya slow to react to deadly shipwreck, analysis finds

An overcrowded rubber boat is seen on the horizon in the Mediterranean Sea, 18 September, 2019. The Ocean Viking regularly conducts rescue missions on the Mediterranean,
An overcrowded rubber boat is seen on the horizon in the Mediterranean Sea, 18 September, 2019. The Ocean Viking regularly conducts rescue missions on the Mediterranean, Copyright Renata Brito/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
By Chantal Da Silva
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An analysis of logs and emails show that Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities responded slowly, insufficiently, or not at all to migrants' pleas for help at sea in a deadly April shipwreck.


Authorities in Italy, Malta and Libya failed to react quickly, if at all, to a migrant boat wreck last month that left more than 100 people dead, a new analysis has found.

Looking over logs and emails from Alarm Phone, a hotline for transiting migrants in distress, and non-governmental organisation SOS Mediterranée, the Associated Press found that urgent calls for help were not responded to in a sufficient manner.

As many as 130 people, predominantly from African countries, are believed to have died in the shipwreck between 21 and 22 April as they awaited rescue, roughly 45 kilometres off the Libyan coast.

Passengers on board had made frantic calls for help, asserting that the dinghy they were in had run out of fuel and was filling up with water.

For most, that relief never came, however, with the wreck becoming the deadliest in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year.

Slow response to mayday calls

Rescue and coordination centres in Libya, Italy and Malta had initially been alerted by Alarm Phone of the boat's need for urgent assistance at 9.52 am 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 Armed Forces of Malta, which oversees maritime search-and-rescue operations, appearing to ignore several requests for comment from AP.

Italian authorities reportedly responded to the call for help at 2.11 pm, more than four hours later, asking that Alarm Phone inform "competent authorities" without explaining who exactly should be contacted.

The Italian coast guard later told AP that the event had taken place "in the Libyan search-and-rescue responsibility area".

Therefore, the coastguard said, "the Libyan authorities took over the coordination of the event".

EU counterparts blamed

Alarm Phone only managed to make contact with a Libyan officer five hours after sending out its first alert at 2.44 pm.

The organisation was informed that the Libyan coastguard was looking for three boats in the area, but was only using one vessel, the Ubari, to do so.

A day after the wreck, Libyan coast guard spokesperson Masoud Ibrahim Masoud had told AP that his agency had located 106 migrants and two bodies from two other boats.

However, due to worsening weather and health concerns for the people who were found, he said workers decided to return to the port before trying to track down the third boat.

Renata Brito/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
A man shows a banner reading 'We are eager to see Europe' before disembarking from aboard the Ocean Viking ship as it reaches Messina, Italy, on 24 September, 2019.Renata Brito/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Masoud also laid blame on EU counterparts, asserting that Libya had received insufficient support from the bloc.

Frontex, which patrols the Mediterranean by air, however, told AP that it had deployed two planes after being asked to do so by Italian authorities.

One plane deployed on April 21 spotted the boat in distress and another was also at the site the following day.

“Frontex did exactly what it had to do and above and beyond,” agency spokesman, Chris Borowski, told the AP on April 24. “We alerted national rescue centres, we issued a mayday call to any vessel in the area to come to the rescue, and we stayed there as long as we could.”


However, SOS Mediterranée has alleged that Frontex's mayday message was only delivered at 7.15 pm, more than nine hours after authorities 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 a number of merchant vessels, made their way to the site, but they found no survivors - only bodies.

In a statement that day, Luisa Albera, the search and rescue coordinator of the Ocean Viking, said that after hours of searching "in the absence of effective State-led coordination", her organisation's "worst fear" had come true.

"The crew of the Ocean Viking had to witness the devastating aftermath of the shipwreck of a rubber boat northeast of Tripoli," she said.

"We are heartbroken. We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to 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 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," she said.

Indeed, the AP's findings come as Europe faces scrutiny for over its repeated failure to rescue migrants at sea, leaving the job up to the Libyan coast guard, despite its limited resources and the country's poor record on human rights.

AP Photo/ Renata Brito
A rescuer waits for orders from the Ocean Viking in the Mediterranean Sea, on 17 September, 2019.AP Photo/ Renata BritoRenata Brito

Legal experts consulted by the AP told the press agency that the apparent refusal to provide rescue support in the April incident could be "constitutive of a violation" under international law.

“The manner in which each of the European actors contacted...attempted to deflect or ignore responsibility can be constitutive of a violation by omission of the relevant obligations under international law,” Violeta Moreno-Lax, founder of the immigration law program at Queen Mary University of London, explained.


While the April incident may represent the biggest loss of life on the Mediterranean so far this year, it is certainly not the last wreck to unfold off Libya's coast.

'We need safe passage'

On Sunday, at least 11 migrants after a rubber dinghy capsized off the coast of Zawya, Libya, with 12 survivors being rescued by the country's coast guard.

Responding 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 "continuous loss of life" will go on.

The warning comes as a rescue vessel carrying 455 migrants docked in Sicily after receiving permission from Italian authorities, as Euronews reported earlier today.


Unaccompanied minors were able to disembark from the ship after being tested for COVID-19 and were being transferred to a dedicated reception centre, rescue organisation Sea-Watch said.

While Sea-Watch celebrated the rescue, the organisation said in a Twitter statement that it remains "worried about the increase of 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 organisation said, calling for a change in regulations that would allow migrants and asylum seekers to cross the Mediterranean to Europe through safe and legal means.

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