At least 21 people died on 16 April when their boat sank off Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Ten years after 72 people were left adrift for fourteen days between Libya and Lampedusa, there is still no justice for the nine people who survived this preventable tragedy. A shooting at a Libyan detention centre that killed one person illustrates the dangers people on the move face in the country where thousands are arbitrary detained after failed attempts to flee across the Mediterranean.

In the latest tragedy on the Mediterranean Sea, 21 people are confirmed dead while Tunisian authorities continue searching on 16 April: “The boat sank during a trip that started late on Thursday from (the town of) Sfax… So far, the coastguard has recovered 21 bodies and the search is still continuing,” Mouard Mechri, director of Tunisia’s civil protection service, told Reuters.

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of a deadly odyssey known as the ‘Left-to-Die Boat’. On 10 April 2011, a group of people who were barely conscious ran aground at Libya’s shores pushed by the winds and the currents. They had been drifting with 72 people for fourteen days after running out of fuel during their attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Lampedusa. With no food or water on board, 61 people perished. Furthermore, one woman died once arriving to the beach, and one man a few days later after being transferred along the other survivors to a detention facility by Libyan military. During the two weeks they were drifting, the area was closely monitored with significant naval and aerial presence off the Libyan coast as part of an operation led by a coalition of states and NATO. Distress signals were sent to the vessels in the area, but despite the fact that contact was established none intervened. This included a helicopter with “ARMY” written on its side that threw water bottles and biscuits into the boat and an encounter with a military ship that sailed away after its crew photographed the people in distress.

Ten years on, the call for justice by the nine survivors and a supporting coalition of associations continues amid recurring cases of deadly negligence by European states. A joint statement on the anniversary of the event, signed by ECRE member ASGI and others, reads: “In spite of their concordant testimonies, in spite of the evidence gathered by several investigations – including those of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and experts of Forensic Oceanography, – the courts before which the complaints were filed – in Italy, France, Spain and Belgium – have so far been blind to the gravity of the facts, and deaf to the demand for justice for the survivors of the ‘left-to-die boat’. […] This impunity is encouraging practices of non-assistance that have continued to multiply since.”

Several recent events illustrate the life-threatening circumstances people on the move face in Libya, where more than 6,000 people have been returned to by the so-called Libyan coats guard in the first quarter of the year. On 8 April, one person was killed and two were injured in a shooting in the Al-Mabani detention centre in Tripoli. Shots were “fired indiscriminately into cells where detained people were held” in reaction to increased tensions in the severely overcrowded facility,  Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports. According to the organisation, conditions in Libya’s detention centres have further deteriorated in recent months as the so-called Libyan coast guard stepped up its efforts to intercept and return people to Libya where they face arbitrary detention. While the Al-Mabani detention centre held 300 people in early February, the number of people detained at the site currently amounts to 1,500 people.

On 11 April, the former commander of the EU supported so-called Libyan coast guard Abd al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija, has been cleared of all charges by the Prosecutor General of Tripoli and has been released. Bija, who was arrested last October, is suspected of being part of a criminal network of human traffickers operating in Zawiyah in north-west Libya. According to the UN Security Council, Bija was “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats, using firearms”. After Bija’s release, he was greeted with celebrations and local sources report that he could be readmitted to the so-called Libyan coast guard and even promoted. Bija’s release comes shortly after Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi visited Libya last week where he expressed his satisfaction with Libya’s role in managing migration across the Mediterranean.

During a preliminary hearing at court in Sicily on 10 April, an Italian prosecutor said that former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini was carrying out government policy when in the summer of 2019 he prevented 116 people from disembarking in Italy after they had been rescued en route to European shores. A decision by a judge on whether a trial for Salvini is warranted is expected next month.

Meanwhile, an Italian court ruled that the Alan Kurdi civil search and rescue ship, detained by the Italian coast guard in October 2020, must be released due to the damage this causes to the operating organisation Sea-Eye. The NGO’s chairman, Gorden Isler highlighted that “The detention of rescue ships is irresponsible because it is exclusively politically motivated.” The Italian coast guard detained the ship last October after its crew had saved 133 lives. A trial on the legality of the detention is scheduled for November this year.

On 9 April, the European Commission adopted new rules for the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR), a cooperation mechanism for exchanging information among authorities responsible for managing the EU’s external borders. The new elements introduced include obligations for MS to “report incidents and operations related to Search and Rescue” for contributing to “better detection of people in danger and help save their lives.”

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 Photo: ECRE

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.