Lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea: Who is responsible?
- Parliamentary Assembly
- Assembly debate on
24 April 2012 (12th Sitting) (see Doc. 12895, report of the Committee
on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, rapporteur: Ms Strik).
Text adopted by the Assembly on 24 April 2012 (12th Sitting).
1 In 2011, at least 1 500 persons
lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
2 One tragedy, revealed by the British newspaper The Guardian, involved a small rubber
dinghy which left Tripoli on 26 March 2011 with 72 people on board.
It washed up on the shores of Libya fifteen days later with only
10 survivors. What made this case different, beyond the tragedy
of the lives lost, was that the boat’s distress calls appear to
have been ignored by a range of fishing vessels, a military helicopter
and a large military vessel. Whereas many people have lost their
lives in the Mediterranean Sea, the people involved in this boat
tragedy could have been rescued if all those involved had complied
with their obligations.
3 Concerned about the implications of these allegations, the
Parliamentary Assembly launched its own investigation in order to
establish what happened and who might be responsible for failing
to go to the rescue of these people.
4 From the survivors’ testimonies and other sources, a credible
story emerges. It took place during the conflict in Libya and at
a time when NATO’s Operation Unified Protector was under way off
the shores of Libya. The sub-Saharan passengers – 50 men, 20 women
and 2 babies – were accompanied to the boat by Libyan militia. They
were boarded by smugglers who removed most of their water supplies
and food in order to get more people into the boat. After over eighteen
hours at sea with almost no petrol, little food and water and no sight
of land, the “captain” called an Eritrean Priest living in Italy
by satellite phone, sending a distress alert. The Italian Maritime
Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome was immediately informed.
It had the position of the boat plotted by the satellite provider
and sent out a large number of calls to the ships in the area to
look out for the boat. Some of these messages clearly indicated
that the boat was in distress. It was from this point that things
started to go seriously wrong.
5 Within a few hours of the first distress signal, a military
helicopter hovered over the boat and provided water and biscuits
and indicated to the passengers that it would return. It never did.
According to the survivors’ testimonies, the boat also encountered
at least two fishing vessels, neither of which came to its assistance. The
boat drifted for several days. With no water and food, people started
to die. On about the 10th day of its voyage, when half of the passengers
were dead, an unidentified aircraft carrier or helicopter-carrying
vessel sailed near to the boat, close enough for the survivors to
see the sailors on board, who were not identified as belonging to
a specific navy, looking at them through binoculars and taking photos.
According to the witnesses, despite obvious distress signals, the
military vessel sailed away. The boat eventually washed up on the
Libyan shores after fifteen days at sea. The 10 survivors were imprisoned,
where one of them died from lack of medical care. Eventually the
nine survivors were released, after which they fled the country.
6 From this tragedy a catalogue of failures becomes apparent.
The Libyan authorities were responsible for what was a de facto expulsion of the sub-Saharan
passengers and they failed to maintain responsibility for their search
and rescue (SAR) zone. The smugglers showed reckless disregard for
the lives of the passengers, overloading the boat and failing to
provide adequate provisions.
7 Although the Rome MRCC verified the position of the boat and
made a general broadcast of the distress calls, it did not ensure
that the passengers were rescued. It failed to contact the vessels
which were close to the boat in distress and to request them to
rescue these boat people. Since it was known that the Libyan SAR zone
was not covered, Italy, as the first State to receive the distress
call, should have taken responsibility for the co-ordination of
the SAR operation.
8 NATO had declared the region a military zone under its control,
but failed to react to the distress calls sent out by the Rome MRCC.
According to a reliable source, at least two vessels involved in
NATO’s operations were in the boat’s vicinity when the distress
call was sent, namely the Spanish frigate Méndez
Núñez (11 miles away) and an Italian ship, the ITS Borsini (37 miles away). Both
had helicopter-carrying facilities. Although the Spanish vessel
was under NATO command, the flag State of this ship and of other
ships in the area prima facie failed to act in accordance with their
search and rescue obligations.
9 Of particular concern to the Assembly is the worrying failure
of a military helicopter and a large military vessel to intervene
and rescue the boat after they had come into contact with it. The
same applies to at least two fishing vessels. None of these have
as yet been identified with any certainty.
10 There was also a failure of the maritime legal framework,
which does not make it clear who is responsible for an SAR zone
when a country is unable to fulfil its SAR obligations.
11 Finally, there was a failure by NATO and individual member
States involved in planning Operation Unified Protector off the
Libyan coast. It was foreseeable that there would be an exodus of
people fleeing the country, including by the dangerous sea route.
In the present case, NATO did not fully take up its responsibilities,
as indicated by the failure of NATO headquarters in Naples to forward
communications about the boat to vessels under its control.
12 In short, there were failures at different levels and many
opportunities to save the lives of the people on board the boat
were lost. In the light of the information available, it has become
apparent that NATO was not very accessible with regard to requests
for SAR operations. Although it was known that many refugees were leaving
Libya by the Mediterranean Sea route in order to reach Europe, there
seemed to be no working agreement between the SAR authorities and
NATO headquarters in Naples. This non-communication contributed
to the situation in which help was not given to those on board.
While the investigation focused on a single incident, the
lessons learned have implications for the way in which search and
rescue operations should be carried out in the future. As a consequence,
the Assembly recommends that member States:
13.1 fill the vacuum of responsibility for SAR zones left by
a State which cannot or does not exercise its responsibility for
search and rescue, as was the case for Libya. This may require amending
the International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (SAR Convention).
In the case in question, two Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres
(Rome and Malta) were aware that the boat was in distress, but neither
started an SAR operation. The Rome MRCC was the first to be informed
of the distress situation, and thus had a greater responsibility
to ensure the boat’s rescue;
13.2 ensure that there are clear and simple guidelines, which
can then be applied, on what amounts to a distress signal, so as
to avoid any confusion over the obligation to launch an SAR operation
for a boat in distress;
13.3 avoid differing interpretations of what constitutes a
vessel in distress, in particular as concerns overloaded, unseaworthy
boats, even if the boat’s engine still works, and render appropriate
assistance to such vessels. Whenever safety requires that a vessel
be assisted, this should lead to rescue actions;
tackle the reasons why commercial vessels fail to go to
the rescue of boats in distress. This will require dealing with:
13.4.1 the economic consequences for the rescuing vessel and
its owners, and the issue of compensation;
13.4.2 the disagreement between Malta and Italy as to whether
disembarkation should be to the nearest safe port or to a port within
the country of the SAR zone. The International Maritime Organization
should be urged to find a solution to the matter and step up its
efforts towards a harmonised interpretation and application of international
13.4.3 the fear of criminalisation (trafficking or aiding and
abetting irregular migration) by those who go to the rescue of boats
carrying irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees;
13.4.4 legislation to criminalise private shipmasters who fail
to comply with their duty under the law of the sea, as is already
the case in certain Council of Europe member States;
13.5 ensure that, in accordance with the Hirsi
v. Italy judgment of the European Court of Human Rights,
after the rescue operation, people are not pushed back to a country
where they risk being treated in violation of Article 3 of the European
Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 5);
13.6 tackle the issue of responsibility sharing, particularly
in the context of rescue services, disembarkation, the administration
of asylum requests, setting up reception facilities and relocation
and resettlement, with a view to developing a binding European Union
protocol for the Mediterranean region. The heavy burden placed on
frontline States leads to a problem of saturation and a reluctance
to take responsibility;
13.7 respect the families’ right to know the fate of those
who lose their lives at sea by improving identity-data collection
and sharing. This could include the setting-up of a DNA file of
the remains of those retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea. In this
context, the ongoing work of the International Committee of the
Red Cross (ICRC) and other organisations should be acknowledged
follow up Assembly Resolution
on the interception and rescue at sea of
asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants;
13.9 ensure that the lack of communication and understanding
between the Rome MRCC and NATO – which led to no one taking responsibility
for the boat – is not reproduced in future NATO operations, and
ensure that NATO introduces a mechanism to co-ordinate its assets
in SAR operations in direct contact with relevant MRCCs wherever
In the light of the seriousness of the allegations that vessels
under national and/or NATO command failed in their duty to rescue
a boat in distress, the Assembly recommends that:
14.1 NATO and the member States involved
in NATO’s operation provide a comprehensive reply to the Assembly’s
outstanding requests for further information on the involvement
of their respective assets. This is in order to identify the military
helicopter that allegedly dropped provisions and never returned,
as well as the large military vessel that allegedly ignored the
boat’s distress calls after half the passengers had already died;
14.2 NATO, including its Parliamentary Assembly, conduct an
inquiry into this incident, and take whatever steps are required
in the light of the findings of that inquiry;
14.3 NATO, when preparing its operations, take into account
possible refugee movements and reach agreements with neighbouring
countries to ensure that refugees are protected;
14.4 national parliaments, or their relevant committees, on
the basis of relevant leads, launch parliamentary inquiries into
the possible responsibility of their respective countries;
14.5 the European Parliament make use of its institutional
power to request and obtain further information, including relevant
satellite imagery, so that the full facts concerning this incident
can be brought to light.
15 Finally, the Assembly recommends that, in view of the ordeal
of the survivors, member States use their discretionary power in
humanitarian matters to look favourably on any claims for asylum
and resettlement coming from these persons.