Thursday

22nd Feb 2018

Nato among those accused of letting migrants die at sea

  • Libya refugees in Italy. A CoE report claims Nato and EU inaction caused 63 deaths in March 2011 (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Confusion, denial and ignored distress signals by Nato, warships and two fishing boats led to the death of 63 migrants (including children) on a boat which tried to cross the Mediterranean last year, according to a scathing report by the Council of Europe (CoE).

"Some began to hallucinate and jumped into the sea. People started dying slowly," Tineke Strik, who drafted the CoE paper after a nine-month inquiry, told press in Brussels on Thursday (29 March). Her findings are based on separate interviews with four of the nine survivors - who have not seen each other since the incident took place, but whose stories matched.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

A small blue rubber boat carrying 72 people set sail from Tripoli shortly after midnight on 26 March 2011.

Most were sub-Saharan Africans - Eritreans and Somalians fleeing a Libya gripped by civil war. Just before they set off, people smugglers dumped some of their food and water to squeeze in yet more bodies.

Fifteen days later, the boat washed up again on the Libyan shore. Just nine young men were still alive, despite the fact the boat had previously been spotted by a military helicopter, a military vessel, an airplane, and two fishing boats in a zone under Nato control - the Strik report alleges.

The captain - possibly a smuggler himself - had called an Eritrean priest in Italy by satellite phone 18 hours into the trip. He said they were low on fuel and getting into trouble.

The Italian coastguard was informed and the boat's position was later fixed by the Rome Maritime Rescue and Co-ordination Centre (MRCC). The MRCC sent several distress messages to all ships in the area, at one point adding "assist if possible." It also informed Nato command in Naples that the boat was in difficulty. It repeated the SOS every four hours for 10 days to all ships.

A Nato spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, said on Thursday that Nato transmitted the information to ships under its control, but added that she has "no record of any Nato aircraft or ship having seen or made contact with this particular boat."

The CoE report flatly contradicts this claiming that a Spanish frigate, under Nato command, was only 11 nautical miles away.

Survivors told Tineke that two hours after the satellite phone call, a military helicopter hovered overhead and signaled the boat to stay put. They described the chopper as small, grey or green, with possibly the word 'Army' written across it.

Hopes were raised for a rescue. But fearing arrest, the 'captain' tossed his special phone and his compass overboard. The helicopter returned a few hours later, dropped biscuits and bottles of water and left.

Both the US and UK had choppers in the Mediterranean at the time but have refused to provide information to the CoE concerning their location.

Some 18 hours into the voyage, a French aircraft is also said to have spotted and photographed the boat.

Meanwhile, between day three and day six, people began to die.

The survivors said that at one point, they also saw a fishing boat with an Italian flag and almost get entangled in its nets. But the fishing boat pulled away and left them stranded without fuel or water.

Strik's interviewees added that on day 10 a large military vessel approached their boat. There was a helicopter was on board and maybe fighter jets.

"Some [of the naval officers] were looking through binoculars and others were taking pictures of us. We held up dead babies ... and also the empty fuel tanks," Ghirma Haleform - an Eritrean survivor - told the CoE investigator. Ghirma said the ship was off-white or grey in colour.

By this point, half the boat's passengers were already dead. Those still alive shouted for help but the military vessel turned around and vanished into the distance.

The CoE report says that: "According to a reliable source, at least two military vessels involved in Nato's operations were in the boat's vicinity when the distress call was sent, namely the Spanish Navy frigate Mendez Nunez and an Italian vessel, the ITS Borsini ... [but they] failed to act in accordance with their search and rescue operations."

For its part, Spain's ministry of defence says it did not get the SOS and that the Mendez Nunez was nowhere near the area.

Strik asked the European External Action Service (EEAS) back in November to release satellite images in its possession which pinpoint the position of military vessels at the time of the events.

"We asked [EEAS chief] Ashton for the satellite images of the vessels but waited a long time for a response, later only to say that they had handed it all to Nato. Nato refused to provide us with the data," Strik said.

Despite the gravity of the allegations, she noted that Ashton's refusal letter came on 19 March 2012, some five months after her appeal.

News in Brief

  1. EU migration to UK at lowest since 2012
  2. MEP Andrieu will chair parliament pesticide committee
  3. Juncker's right-hand man warns of 'institutional blockage'
  4. Greek parliament to open probe on PMs and EU commissioner
  5. May gathers Brexit ministers to hammer out UK position
  6. Tajani asks Juncker for all EMA Brexit relocation documents
  7. Hahn: EU to back entry talks with Albania and Macedonia
  8. UEFA signs deal to promote 'European values' at EURO 2020

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EPSUMovie Premiere: 'Up to The Last Drop' - 22 February, Brussels
  2. Aid & Trade LondonJoin Thousands of Stakeholders of the Global Aid Industry at Aid & Trade London
  3. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.European Free Alliance Joins MHRMI to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism Year to Promote Business and Mutual Ties
  5. European Jewish CongressAt “An End to Antisemitism!” Conference, Dr. Kantor Calls for Ambitious Solutions
  6. UNESDAA Year Ago UNESDA Members Pledged to Reduce Added Sugars in Soft Drinks by 10%
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsUzbekistan: Investigate Torture of Journalist
  8. CESICESI@Noon on ‘Digitalisation & Future of Work: Social Protection For All?’ - March 7
  9. UNICEFExecutive Director's Committment to Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region 2018: Facts, Figures and Rankings of the 74 Regions
  11. Mission of China to the EUDigital Economy Shaping China's Future, Over 30% of GDP
  12. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.Suing the Governments of Macedonia and Greece for Changing Macedonia's Name

Latest News

  1. Frontex: Europe's new law enforcement agency?
  2. Poland and Greece broke EU environment laws, rules court
  3. Dutch MPs vote on ending 'Ukraine-type' referendums
  4. Corruption report: Hungary gets worse, Italy makes progress
  5. UK seeks flexible transition length after Brexit
  6. Commission defence of Barroso meeting leaves 'discrepancies'
  7. MEPs bar WMD and killer robots from new EU arms fund
  8. Canete gets EU parliament pension while still commissioner

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Dialogue PlatformBeyond the Errors in the War on Terror: How to Fight Global Militarism - 22 February
  2. Swedish EnterprisesHarnessing Globalization- at What Cost? Keynote Speaker Commissioner Malmström
  3. European Friends of ArmeniaSave The Date 28/02: “Nagorno-Karabakh & the EU: 1988-2018”
  4. European Heart NetworkSmart CAP is Triple Win for Economy, Environment and Health
  5. European Free AlllianceEFA Joined the Protest in Aiacciu to Solicit a Dialogue After the Elections
  6. EPSUDrinking Water Directive Step Forward but Human Right to Water Not Recognized
  7. European Gaming & Betting AssociationGambling Operators File Data Protection Complaint Against Payment Block in Norway
  8. European Jewish CongressEJC Expresses Deep Concern Over Proposed Holocaust Law in Poland
  9. CECEConstruction Industry Gets Together to Discuss the Digital Revolution @ the EU Industry Days
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Relations in the New Era
  11. European Free AlllianceEnd Discrimination of European Minorities - Sign the Minority Safepack Initiative
  12. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Diversity Shouldn’t Be Only a Slogan” Lorant Vincze (Fuen) Warns European Commission