More than 300 people on four rubber vessels die in the Central Mediterranean Sea

14.02.2015 / 13:07 / Approximately 40NM off Tripoli and 120 NM off Lampedusa

Four inflatable rubber vessels that together carried over 400 people left a beach close to Tripoli/Libya in order to reach Italy in the night from Saturday 7th to Sunday 8th of February 2015. During their journey the migrants were without food and water and encountered situa-tions of distress due to the very difficult weather conditions. In total, and as far as known, there were merely 86 survivors and more than 324 fatalities.

According to first testimonies of survivors, armed smugglers had forced them to embark by threatening to shoot anyone who would refuse to get onto the vessels (source 1). Following the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, survivors reported that water had been leaking into the rubber boats almost immediately after their departure (source 2).

In the early afternoon of Sunday the 8th, the MRCC Rome received a satellite phone call from the passengers of one of the vessels, located 120 nautical miles (NM) from Lampedusa and 40 NM from Tripoli (source 3). Four patrol boats, including the Italian coastguard’s CP 302 and CP 305 located near Lampedusa, as well as two Italian vessels part of the Frontex operation Triton were dispatched to the location of the vessels in distress (source 3). Furthermore, two merchant ves-sels in vicinity, the Bourbon Argos and the Saint Rock, were advised to direct themselves to the refugee vessels (source 4). The two largest vessels part of Triton with actual rescue capacities, the Icelandic Tyr and an Italian navy vessel, presumably the Libra, were in maintenance in Malta and at a port in Sicily and therefore unable to intervene (source 5).

The Bourbon Argos first reached one of the rubber boats. It was unable to conduct a rescue operation but waited for the coastguard and sought, in the meantime, to shield the boat from high waves. One of the Italian coastguard vessels reached the rubber boat in distress after 7 hours of navigating in very difficult meteorological conditions with force 8 winds, and 8 to 9 metre-high waves. When the coastguard vessel arrived on location, 7 people were already found dead and 22 died of hypothermia (at least three were minors) within the 18 hours that it took for the patrol boat to navigate back to Lampedusa. The patrol vessels could not travel faster than 2 knots per hour so that they arrived with 77 survivors in Lampedusa on Monday 9th, around 8pm [at this point in time it is unclear whether one or two patrol vessels navigated back to Lampedusa]. Merely one of the survivors who carried documents could be identified: a 31 year old man from the Ivory Coast.

In the same area of the first encountered vessel in distress, the three other boats were searched for but only two were found and one remains missing. Survivor accounts suggest that the missing vessel carried around 100 persons on board. The two other rubber boats with 107 and 109 people on board respectively were found by a merchant vessel. On the former only two were still alive, on the latter seven. Thus, 9 people, presumably from Senegal and Mali, were the only survivors from these two rubber boats (sources 6 & 7).

Amongst the 324 dead are many young men between 18 and 25 years, but also women and children, mainly from Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia, Niger, and Mauritania. One of the survivors is a 12 year old boy who was rescued on Monday.

At this early stage, with the events still unfolding, several questions emerge that need to be addressed:

- Were distress calls immediately answered by the Italian rescue services and by Frontex?

- How is it possible that 22 people died of hypothermia after they had been ‘rescued’ by the Italian coastguard? Were the vessels participating in the rescue operation ill-equipped to adequately conduct SAR operations as the statement of the doctor on board suggests (see below)?

- In a situation in which Italy’s navy operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ has ceased to exist and in which the Frontex’s operation ‘Triton’ is conducted with limited resources and rescue capaci-ties, how is it justified that two of the largest assets of Frontex were not operational but were located in Malta and Sicily for purposes of maintenance?

In the aftermath of these shipwrecks, several international organisations have criticised Op-eration Triton, Frontex and the EU at large for failing to address the humanitarian catastrophy that is, once more, unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea. The UNHCR urged the EU to priori-tise the saving of lives, with UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres stating: “There can be no doubt left after this week’s events that Europe’s Operation Triton is a woe-fully inadequate replacement for Italy’s Mare Nostrum” (source 8). Amnesty International called upon the EU to increase search and rescue capacities, suggesting that “the humanitarian crisis that sparked the need for Mare Nostrum has not gone away. With people continuing to flee war and persecution, EU member states must stop burying their heads in the sand whilst hundreds keep dying at sea” (source 9).

The Director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) Xuereb said: “The most tragic ele-ment of this latest disaster is that the migrants died after they had been rescued, many from hypothermia due to being exposed on deck” (source 10). In an interview, the doctor on board of one of the patrol vessels, Gabriella Lattuca from the Order of Malta described the dramatic situation on board (source 11). Following her account, there was not a sufficient amount of survival blankets on board and some flew away due to strong winds. The few existing ‘heating pads’ were not enough to keep the survivors warm and due to the meteorological conditions it was impossi-ble to request aerial rescue forces. Also, doctor Pietro Bartolo, chief health care official on Lampedusa suggested that the coastguard vessel was not suited to rescue people, putting further emphasis on the need to enquire into how the rescued migrants were cared for after being taken onboard (source 5).

While Watch The Med supports calls for an extensive European rescue mission and agrees that the Frontex Operation Triton is fundamentally ill-equipped to address the humanitarian needs at sea, even another Mare Nostrum operation will not suffice to stop the dying at sea! In 2014, more than 3400 people died despite Italy’s large-scale military-humanitarian navy operation. This goes to show that the only possible response to the mass suffering and dying would be the opening of legal and safe means and pathways into EU territories.
Last update: 09:32 Feb 16, 2015
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Layers »
  • Border police patrols
    While the exact location of patrols is of course constantly changing, this line indicates the approximate boundary routinely patrolled by border guards’ naval assets. In the open sea, it usually correspond to the outer extent of the contiguous zone, the area in which “State may exercise the control necessary to prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws” (UNCLOS, art. 33). Data source: interviews with border police officials.
  • Coastal radars
    Approximate radar beam range covered by coastal radars operating in the frame of national marine traffic monitoring systems. The actual beam depends from several different parameters (including the type of object to be detected). Data source: Finmeccanica.
  • Exclusive Economic Zone
    Maritime area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea in which the coastal state exercises sovereign rights for the purposes of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, the seabed and its subsoil and the superjacent waters. Its breadth is 200 nautical miles from the straight baselines from which the territorial sea is measured (UNCLOS, Arts. 55, 56 and 57). Data source: Juan Luis Suárez de Vivero, Atlas of the European Seas and Oceans
  • Frontex operations
    Frontex has, in the past few years, carried out several sea operations at the maritime borders of the EU. The blue shapes indicate the approximate extend of these operations. Data source: Migreurop Altas.
  • Mobile phone coverage
    Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network coverage. Data source: Collins Mobile Coverage.
  • Oil and gas platforms
    Oil and gas platforms in the Mediterranean. Data source:
  • Search and Rescue Zone
    An area of defined dimensions within which a given state is has the responsibility to co-ordinate Search and Rescue operations, i.e. the search for, and provision of aid to, persons, ships or other craft which are, or are feared to be, in distress or imminent danger. Data source: IMO availability of search and rescue (SAR) services - SAR.8/Circ.3, 17 June 2011.
  • Territorial Waters
    A belt of sea (usually extending up to 12 nautical miles) upon which the sovereignty of a coastal State extends (UNCLOS, Art. 2). Data source: Juan Luis Suárez de Vivero, Atlas of the European Seas and Oceans

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