CAIRO (AP) – As waves battered the gray rubber boat carrying more than 100 Africans hoping to reach Europe from Libya, those on board frantically dialed the stranded migrants. 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.
At the other end of the line, activists attempted to calm the migrants by repeatedly relaying the boat’s GPS coordinates to Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities, and then to Frontex, the border guard and guard agency. coasts of the European Union, hoping that the authorities would launch a rescue. operation in accordance with international maritime law.
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. A total of around 130 people are believed to have died between April 21 and 22 while waiting in vain for someone to rescue them, about 45 kilometers off the Libyan coast.
It was the deadliest wreck to date this year in the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 20,000 migrants or asylum seekers have perished since 2014, and renewed accusations that European countries are failing to help migrant boats in difficulty.
Instead, human rights groups, UN migration and refugee agencies and international law experts say European countries too often ignore their international obligations to rescue 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 held in squalid and overcrowded detention centers where they are face abuse, torture, rape and even death.
European countries, of course, regularly rescue migrants 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, deployed military planes and helicopters as well as rescue vessels to transport three people and recover the bodies of 24 people who died in a wreck on April 26, nearly 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the Canary Islands of the country.
But no 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 stopped studying economics at university and had gone to Libya to look for a job a year and a half earlier. He has worked in construction, sending money to loved ones struggling in the worsening economic crisis in Sudan.
But it still wasn’t enough, so he contacted the smugglers and boarded the migrant 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 could not reach a Libyan officer until five hours after the first alert, at 2:44 p.m. They were told that the Libyan coast guard was indeed looking for three boats in the area – but with only one vessel, the Ubari .
A day after the sinking, 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 stranded boat and another on April 22.
“Frontex has done exactly what it needs 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 Mayday message 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 these three rescue and coordination centers did not alert ships in the region earlier.
Frontex blamed the deaths on smugglers and deteriorating weather conditions. On the night of April 21, the waves reached a height of 2 to 3 meters (6 1/2 to 10 feet).
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.
Legal experts consulted by the PA, however, said that even if a vessel in distress is 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 of London, explained in an email.
Earlier this year, the Independent Human Rights Committee, working with the United Nations, decided that Italy 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 zone – 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.
Yet Europeans rely heavily on Libyans, who, with European encouragement, recorded a large search and rescue area in the Mediterranean with the International Maritime Organization in 2018, including an area where Italy previously carried out rescues.
Frontex also works closely with the Libyan Coast Guard to help them intercept migrants. According to a recent investigation published by the media Der Spiegel, Lighthouse Reports, ARD and Liberation, European planes have guided the Libyan coastguard to migrant boats in distress at least 20 times since January 2020. During these interceptions, some 91 migrants and refugees have died or are missing, the investigation found.
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 whenever a Frontex plane spots a boat in distress, it immediately alerts the national rescue centers in the region: Italy, Malta, Libya and Tunisia,” he said. ‘agency. “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 the Libyans 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.
Renata Brito reported from Barcelona, Spain. PA journalists Noha Elhennawy in Cairo, Maria Grazia Murru and Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
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