The shipwreck that took 30 lives on Sunday is the object of a dispute between NGOs and Italian and European authorities. The latter are claiming that the boat was in the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone. However, that is very different from Libya’s territorial waters; it’s no surprise the rescue was coordinated from Rome.
Let’s start with the known facts:
On Sunday morning, in international waters between Libya, Malta and Italy, a boat with 47 people capsized. Only 17 were rescued and transferred to Pozzallo. The Alarm Phone (AP) operator had issued the first SOS regarding the boat more than 30 hours earlier.
At 2:28 a.m. Italian time, on the night between Friday and Saturday, after receiving a call from aboard the vessel, Alarm Phone alerted the relevant authorities from Libya, Malta and Italy. The boat was adrift. Half an hour later, Alarm Phone asked the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome (IMRCC) to instruct the privately owned tanker Amax Avenue, which was passing nearby, to divert in order to assist the boat, as is common in many search and rescue operations. However, the tanker never altered its course.
Seven and a half hours later, the Sea Watch NGO’s Sea Bird aircraft spotted the migrants, photographed them from above and the images quickly ended up online for all to see. At the same time, the aircraft launched a distress call, specifically to the merchant ship Basilis L, which was located not far away: “The situation is urgent. The waves are high. Please go to the indicated position.”
At 11:28 a.m., Sea Bird contacted the ship’s bridge by radio. The crew of the Basilis L told them that IMRCC had told them to follow the instructions of the Libyan “Coast Guard” and to approach the boat. At 4:51 p.m., the NGO called Tripoli, which told them it had three patrol boats in the capital but none in Benghazi, so it did not have the means to take part in the rescue.
More hours passed without any rescue boat leaving. Meanwhile, the Libyans asked Rome for support. This was admitted by the Italian Coast Guard in a statement which avoided giving a timeline of the events (that is, the exact time when each step was taken). Rome evidently assumed coordination of this case and diverted three more commercial vessels toward the target. Rescue operations began “at first light,” the Coast Guard says. During the transfer of the migrants to the Froland ship, the boat capsized.
This time, the corpses won’t wash up on the beaches of some resort town. Nevertheless, there are dead and there are responsibilities. A possible criminal case will have to unravel an even more tangled web of responsibilities and actors than the Crotone tragedy. For example, it will have to ascertain whether the delays were because of an attempt to get the Libyans to intervene so that the people would be brought back to Libya instead of taken to a safe port.
To put the facts into context, the first point that needs to be clarified is that contrary to the claims of members of the Italian government majority, the shipwreck did not occur in Libyan waters but in international waters. The boat’s location was about 250 kilometers from Benghazi, 400 km from Tripoli, 420 km from Valletta and 450 km from Pozzallo. The coordinates are in the so-called “Libyan SAR.”
“The sea is divided into search and rescue zones with the aim of protecting human life even where there is no state sovereignty, which applies only within 12 miles of the coast,” says Lucia Gennari, attorney for ASGI. These are waters where everyone is free to sail and over which the respective coastal countries have a primary duty to organize rescue – but not the sole duty if other state authorities are alerted.
This is especially true for the Libyan area, proclaimed as such in 2018 but which is in fact nothing more than a legal fiction, because Tripoli doesn’t have safe ports of disembarkation or operational capacity for rescues. The tragedy demonstrates this reality yet again. Then one must take into account that Tripoli and Benghazi belong to different administrations and powers that have been at literal war with each other in recent years, and no patrol boats go from the capital to Cyrenaica. Italy is aware of this fact, which is why it recently coordinated several events in that area.
Then, the area of the sea where the wreck happened is one where the air and sea assets of the Irini-Eunavfor Med mission usually operate. It’s hard to believe that they left it totally deserted between Friday and Sunday. It’s more likely that they preferred not to intervene because of the weight of the “pull factor” hoax on the whole mission – that is, the never-proven idea that the presence of rescuers would increase migrant departures. The Defense Ministry website says, “The manner of deployment of the naval assets [of Irini] means that the number of people to be rescued will be very small.” In three years of operations, the “very small” number has been equal to zero.
“Operation Irini is patrolling only in a specified area which was determined by the agreement of all the member states, and this area is not where the main migratory routes are running through,” EU Commission spokesman Peter Stano said. This statement did little to clarify the confusion. “The military ships were there, they received the alert message issued by the coordination center in Rome, but they did not act, despite having an obligation to do so,” accuses Luca Casarini of Mediterranea.
Beyond the legal liabilities, there is also the political issue. Departures are increasing, NGOs are under attack, Malta is not intervening, Libya is not a safe port. Italy should begin a unilateral initiative like Mare Nostrum was, or push for a European rescue mission, but its government is a prisoner of its slogans about stopping crossings and hunting down traffickers “all over the globe, land and sea.” Thus, the most likely scenario is an increase in shipwrecks. At some point, the government will have to take political responsibility for it.