“Often the ‘rules of engagement’ are not from the ministry I belong to [Infrastructure] but from the Interior Ministry.” Prodded by reporters in front of the mortuary in Crotone, where 67 coffins are lined up, local harbormaster Vittorio Aloi thus added another piece to the puzzle of responsibility that is slowly coming together around the Steccato di Cutro shipwreck.
Three days after the tragedy, the wreckage of the boat still calls for answers to the fundamental question: who decided to classify the Frontex alert as a law enforcement event and not a search and rescue (SAR) event?
The answer is not simple and risks getting lost in the vagaries of what has happened in Italy over the past 20 years: the twisting of the institutional system of protecting human life at sea under the pressures of anti-migrant policies from land. One thing, however, is certain: in this story, the responsibilities don’t exclude each other, but add up.
Let’s start with Frontex. On Wednesday, in a new statement, the European external border control agency clarified that it had sent a report about a boat that was moving autonomously and showed no signs of danger. One person was visible on board, but thermal cameras indicated the presence of other people below deck. This time, Frontex refrained from giving precise numbers (like the figure of 200 people it gave to ANSA on Tuesday in Brussels), but added that the report was sent to the International Coordination Centre (ICC) of Operation Themis. This replaced Operation Triton since 2018 and focuses on aerial surveillance of the central Mediterranean. However, the report was also forwarded to other competent authorities. Among them was the Coast Guard operations center in Rome, as the institution admitted on Tuesday.
The Italian component of the ICC is the Finance Police, which after receiving the alert sent two vessels to search for the boat. They did not find it, and, according to the Finance Police, went back due to prohibitive weather conditions. It’s worth adding here that on Wednesday, Aloi denied that there had been Force 7 winds at sea at the time. “We have it as Force 4,” he said. This information was also confirmed by weather bulletins for the southern Ionian Sea on Saturday night and Sunday morning.
The Coast Guard claims to have received the first distress signals at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. Only at that point did it begin a SAR operation, with all the procedures in place. This version implicitly claims that the Frontex email did not describe an event in which human life was in danger. But this doesn’t add up. Because in the description of the boat there were already all the elements that could have triggered the search and rescue mechanism.
This is according to Italian jurisprudence, which has clarified in a number of rulings on the international conventions that all migrant boats are to be considered at risk from the moment of departure. Admiral Nicola Carlone, currently General Commander of the Coast Guard, explained this himself on May 3, 2017, in a hearing before the parliamentary oversight committee on Schengen: “It is therefore clear that a ship with hundreds of people on board cannot be left adrift, on top of the fact that it is lacking in the most basic safety conditions, overloaded, without a professional crew or suitable navigation equipment and instruments.” This is also explained in EU Regulation 656/2015 on Frontex, in Article 9, which lists several of the characteristics that were noted regarding the boat.
But who should have declared the SAR operation? On Wednesday, the European agency disclaimed any responsibility, as “this is up to the national authorities.” However, even its aircraft all by itself could have invoked a search and rescue operation. The rules are clear: any party with information about a vessel in distress can do so – including a private vessel. Thus, the culpability extends to the entire list of addresses to which Frontex sent the alert. Any of the institutions that received it could have taken action. Was it a guilty downplaying of the danger, or did different orders come from above? Perhaps from the Coast Guard in Rome? Or from the Interior Ministry, which, although it has no legal jurisdiction, has carved out a growing role for itself in the management of migrants in the Mediterranean through the National coordination center (NCC)? Especially since 2019, when the Interior was headed by the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, now at Infrastructure.
“Operations are conducted by the Finance Police until they become SAR,” Aloi said. This statement makes it clear that when migrants are involved, postponing the rescue operation is an established practice. This time, however, it all ended in tragedy. Not least because the SAR event for the boat was not declared even after two Finance Police ships – themselves with a much higher level of seaworthiness – were forced to return due to the weather conditions.
One of the many questions still open, which politicians and the judiciary will have to answer, is that of the SAR 384 case. Between 9:44 p.m. on Friday and 1:46 p.m. on Saturday, Italian time, the Coast Guard’s Rome-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) sent four Inmarsat messages – a kind of fax that reaches ships in the area – asking them to keep a high level of alert in connection with a barge in distress. This in effect describes the third phase of a SAR event, the one with the greatest danger. There were no coordinates given, but the event referred to the Ionian Sea.
At this point, we don’t know whether this was indeed the boat that ended up shipwrecked or another one. Aloi said he didn’t know anything about it and the Coast Guard has not responded to the request for clarification sent by il manifesto on Tuesday. It has 30 days to do so. This is not classified information.