As waves beat the gray rubber boat carrying more than 100 Africans hoping to reach Europe from Libya, those on board frantically dialed for migrants and refugees in distress.
In the series of calls to the Alarm Phone hotline, passengers explained that the dinghy ran out of fuel while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and was quickly filling with water and panicking.
On the other end of the line, activists attempted to calm migrants and refugees by repeatedly relaying the boat’s GPS coordinates to Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities and later to Frontex, the border and border agency. coast guard of the European Union, hoping that the authorities would launch a rescue operation as required by international maritime law.
An analysis of the newspapers and emails of Alarm Phone and the NGO SOS Mediterranée as well as reports from the Libyan coast guard show that the national authorities contacted responded slowly, insufficiently or not at all to calls for help.
In all, around 130 people are believed to have died between April 21 and 22 while waiting in vain for someone to rescue them, around 45 km off the Libyan coast.
It was the deadliest wreck to date this year in the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 20,000 migrants and refugees have perished since 2014, and renewed accusations that European countries are failing to help boats in difficulty transporting migrants and refugees.
Instead, human rights groups, UN migration and refugee agencies and international law experts say European countries too often ignore their international obligations to save migrants at sea. and outsource operations to the Libyan Coast Guard despite its limited capacity, reports its links to human traffickers and the fact that those intercepted, including children, are being held in squalid and overcrowded detention centers where they face abuse, torture, rape and even death.
‘I was supposed to be one of the drowned’
European countries regularly rescue migrants and refugees in distress.
Since the wreckage of April 21 alone, the Italian coast guard and navy have rescued at least 149 people near its shores.
Spanish authorities, meanwhile, have deployed military planes and helicopters as well as rescue ships to transport three people and recover the bodies of 24 people who died in a wreck on April 26 nearly 500 km from the country’s Canary Islands. .
But no such rescue took place on April 21.
A day later, merchant ships sailing in the area and a humanitarian rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, found the remains of the boat and reported seeing at least 10 bodies floating on the surface.
One of the deceased was leaning over a circular buoy with his face in the water.
“I was supposed to be one of the drowned,” Mutawakel Ali, 27, recently said from Libya. He and five other Sudanese missed the April 20 boat departure from Al-Khums by a few minutes because they stopped en route to the coast to break their daily Ramadan fast.
But his 23-year-old cousin, Mubarak Jaber, did not escape. Jaber, the oldest of seven brothers, had dropped out of college economics and traveled to Libya to look for a job a year and a half earlier.
He worked in construction, sending money to his relatives who were struggling in the deteriorating economic crisis in Sudan.
But it still wasn’t enough, so he contacted the smugglers and boarded the boat.
Rescue and coordination centers in Libya, Italy and Malta were first alerted by Alarm Phone that the boat needed assistance the next day at 9:52 a.m. Central European Summer Time, according to emails viewed by The Associated Press.
Alarm Phone and SOS Mediterranée claim to have received no response from the Maltese authorities.
Malta’s armed forces, responsible for maritime search and rescue operations, did not respond to several PA requests for comment.
It was not until 2:11 pm, more than four hours later, that Alarm Phone received a response from the Italian authorities, asking the activists to inform the “competent authorities” without specifying who it was.
Alarm Phone was only able to reach a Libyan officer five hours after the first alert, at 2:44 p.m. They were told the Libyan Coast Guard was indeed looking for three boats in the area – but with only one vessel, the Ubari .
A day after the wreckage, Libyan coast guard spokesman Masoud Ibrahim Masoud told the PA that his agency found 106 migrants and two bodies on two other boats.
Due to the deteriorating weather conditions and the poor health of those already found, they returned to port before locating the third boat, he said, adding that the support received from the EU was insufficient.
Frontex, which only patrols by air in the Mediterranean, said it deployed two planes after being asked to do so by the Italians, one on April 21 which spotted the boat in distress and another on April 22.
“Frontex did exactly what it had to do and beyond,” agency spokesman Chris Borowski told the AP on April 24. the rescue, and we were there as long as possible.
But this message from Mayday was not sent until 7.15 p.m., according to SOS Mediterranée, more than nine hours after the first alert from the Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities.
It is not known why the three rescue and coordination centers did not issue an alert earlier to ships in the region.
Frontex blamed the deaths on smugglers and deteriorating weather conditions. On the night of April 21, the waves were two to three meters (six and a half to 10 feet) high.
Asked by the PA about its role, the Italian coast guard referred to a statement issued following the initial sinking.
“The event took place in the Libyan search and rescue area of responsibility. The Libyan authorities took charge of coordinating the event, ”reads the April 23 press release.
European actors “ ignored responsibility ”
Legal experts consulted by the PA, however, said that even though a vessel in distress may be in the search and rescue area of a country’s international waters, that does not relieve other authorities of responsibility.
“The way in which each of the European actors contacted … attempted to deflect or ignore responsibility may constitute a violation by omission of the relevant obligations under international law”, Violeta Lax Moreno, founder of the law program ‘immigration to Queen Mary University in London, explained in an email.
Earlier this year, the Independent Human Rights Committee, working with the UN, ruled that Italy had failed to protect the “right to life” of more than 200 migrants and refugees who died when the boat they were on sank in the Mediterranean in 2013.
In this case, the boat was inside the Maltese search and rescue area, but experts determined that Italian rescuers could have prevented the tragedy if they had acted quickly. They urged Italy to investigate and prosecute anyone responsible.
Still, Europeans rely heavily on the Libyans, who, with European encouragement, registered a large Mediterranean search and rescue area with the International Maritime Organization in 2018, including an area where Italy previously carried out military operations. rescues.
Frontex also works closely with the Libyan Coast Guard to help them intercept migrants and refugees.
According to a recent investigation published by the media Der Spiegel, Lighthouse Reports, ARD and Liberation, European planes have guided the Libyan coast guard to migrant boats in distress at least 20 times since January 2020.
During these interceptions, some 91 migrants and refugees died or disappeared, according to the survey.
When the Ocean Viking asked Frontex for air support on April 22 to find the boat in distress, it said it did not get a response.
Frontex told the PA that the recent investigation “distorts” the agency’s role in the central Mediterranean and that its priority in any potential search and rescue is to save lives.
“In the central Mediterranean region, this means that each time a Frontex plane spots a boat in distress, it immediately alerts the national rescue centers in the region: Italy, Malta, Libya and Tunisia” , the agency said. “Frontex does not coordinate search and rescue operations.”
Asked about the EU’s role in responding to the April 21 wreckage, European Commission Home Affairs spokesperson Adalbert Jahnz lamented the deaths, but said the committee could not comment because “we have no jurisdiction or influence” on the matter and this search-and-rescue operations have been carried out and coordinated by national authorities.
To compound the April 21 tragedy, none of the European or Libyan authorities involved ever picked up the bodies found floating in the water.
The Ocean Viking crew ultimately made the difficult decision not to pick up any of the bodies to allow the ship to continue rescuing and because they had been told Libyan authorities were on their way. This saved 236 people.
Families will never be able to bury their loved ones and, without a body, it will be more difficult to investigate the deaths.
Setena Abdalla sobbed as she spoke from her home in Omdurman, Sudan, of the death of her only son: Mohammed Abdel-Khaliq, 24.
“He was my whole life,” said the 54-year-old single mom.
Abdel-Khaliq had attempted passage once before but was intercepted and placed in a detention center for two months. On two other occasions, smugglers took his money and did not show up.
Still, he was determined to try again. On April 19, he telephoned his mother for the last time.
“I appealed to her not to travel,” she said.
But Abdel-Khaliq went anyway and now remains in the Mediterranean Sea forever.