Joint Statement by Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-Watch

March 13, 2023

On Saturday, 11th March, just two weeks after at least 79 people drowned in a shipwreck off the Italian coast, Italian and Maltese authorities left once again people dying at sea. This time, their politics of non-assistance and the delegation of their duties to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard led to the death of 30 people who were on a boat in distress in international waters, in the contested Libyan Search-and-Rescue (SAR) region. The boat carried 47 people and was adrift at sea.

Of these, only 17 people survived due to the intervention of a merchant vessel. The 30 people who died could be still alive, if only the Italian and Maltese authorities had decided to immediately coordinate a proper rescue operation.

These deaths are not the result of an accident. They are the consequence of deliberate political choices. Italian and Maltese authorities could have intervened immediately. Instead, they chose to wait for too long and referred to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard as the responsible and ‘competent’ authority, thereby wasting the time that was needed to save all of the distressed.

The Italian, Maltese, as well as the Libyan authorities were first informed about the distress case on March 11 at 2:28h CET (see timeline below) by the Alarm Phone. The Oil Tanker AMAX AVENUE, and some time later the merchant vessel GAMMA STAR, were in the vicinity of the distressed boat but passed by. Several hours later, another merchant vessel, the BASILIS L, finally directed itself towards the position of the boat in danger. Waiting for a better equipped vessel for a rescue operation, it monitored the boat in distress. The Italian and Maltese authorities decided to wait, in vain, for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to launch its patrol boats, in order to illegally pull all people back to Libya instead of rescuing them to an European port.

Picture: sea-watch.org, Christian Gohdes

Despite the extremely challenging maritime conditions and the desperate state of the stranded boat, neither the Italian, nor the Maltese or the Libyan authorities activated their resources for a rescue operation – for over 30 hours after the first alert by Alarm Phone. In the past, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center Rome already conducted coordination of merchant vessels in other cases outside their Search and Rescue area[1].

Moreover, the location where the shipwreck occurred was in international waters, outside of Libyan territorial waters. The boat in distress was within the area of operations of the European mission EUNAVFORMED IRINI and the Italian ‘Mare Sicuro’ mission, with both Italian and European military assets continuously present.

None of these assets replied to the call for help sent out by Seabird, a monitoring aircraft operated by Sea-Watch, on the radio; nor were they engaged in the rescue operation by the well-informed Italian or Maltese authorities. The Italian authorities delegated the rescue to merchant vessels instead that were not equipped for rescue operations.

Both, delaying rescue and delegating rescue responsibility to merchant vessels not equipped to rescue, are part of a political strategy that focus delivering people in the hands of Libyan militias or abandoning them at sea, causing their death. For the deaths of 30 people, as well as the deaths of innumerable others at Europe’s maritime borders, Italy, Malta and other EU member states bear primary responsibility.

As Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-Watch, we denounce and urge European member states, primary Italy and Malta, as well as the European Union, to end their border externalisation policies and the delegation of duties to Libya. Both have been central factors leading to the death of the 30 people in distress, as well as thousands of others before.

The Italian and Maltese authorities must cease to refer distress cases to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which has an appalling human rights record and has forcefully returned over 100.000 people to inhumane conditions in Libya. Moreover, the contested Libyan Search and Rescue region cannot be viewed as under the exclusive responsibility of Libyan authorities. Moreover, the Italian and Maltese authorities also have to end their reliance on merchant vessels alone to fulfil their duty to rescue.

Many questions remain open and still need to be answered: Why did the Italian and Maltese authorities fail to intervene and rescue the persons in distress? Why has no EUNAVFOR MED asset reacted to the mayday relay by Seabird? All of these authorities need to provide an account of their role in this case and their failure to act.

We urge the European Union to ensure safe and legal pathways to Europe and engage in coordinated Search and Rescue operations, instead of financing and equipping the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, supporting pullbacks illegal under international law.

[1] Examples of such cases of rescues by merchant vessels in Libyan SAR coordinated by MRCC Rome:

  • https://twitter.com/scandura/status/1586442702068994048?s=20&t=678YEHDH1wW4VABZZ59-eg
  • https://twitter.com/alarm_phone/status/1588249230438584320
  • https://twitter.com/alarm_phone/status/1616089062678450177

Reconstruction available on the Alarm phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans or Sea Watch’s websites.

Article published in Echoes#5