Italy violated the right to life of hundreds of people who died at sea in 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee has found. A shipwreck off the Libyan coast claimed 17 lives, raising this year’s Mediterranean death toll to 105. Within one week, 452 people were returned to Libya where the engagement of Italian NGOs in detention centres prompted a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Auditors in Rome. More than 440 survivors rescued by the Ocean Viking and a commercial vessel disembarked in Sicily and Lampedusa.

Italy failed to protect the right to life of more than 200 migrants who were on board a vessel that shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea in 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) has found. Over 400 people, mostly from Syria, left Libyan shores on a fishing boat in the early hours of 11 October 2013. A few hours after setting off, the vessel was reportedly shot at by a boat flying a Berber flag and water began to enter the vessel. In the following hours, the travellers made several, increasingly desperate phone calls to Italian and Maltese authorities but rescue was delayed. The Italian navy ship ITS Libra located in the vicinity of the distress case and well equipped to conduct rescues was not instructed to interfere. When eventually a Maltese patrol boat arrived at the scene, hours after the first mayday calls were made, the leaking vessel had already capsized. And only then, following an urgent request by Malta, the Italian navy ship approached the emergency site. As a consequence of the delays, over 200 people drowned, including at least 60 children. Survivors of this avoidable tragedy have taken Italian authorities to various courts and finally to the OHCHR whose decision responds to a joint complaint lodged by three Syrians and a Palestinian, who survived the lethal accident but lost their families. The decision published on 27 January requires Italy to proceed with an independent and timely investigation and to prosecute those responsible. Further, Italy and other countries involved in the tragedy need to provide effective remedy to those who lost their families in the accident. The case is particularly complex, because the accident happened within the Maltese – not Italian – search and rescue zone in international waters, as committee member Hélène Tigroudja highlights, stating: “Even though the sinking vessel was not located in Italy’s search and rescue zone, the Italian authority had a duty to support the search and rescue mission to save the lives of the migrants. Italy’s delayed action had a direct impact on the loss of hundreds of lives.”

This year’s death toll in the Mediterranean Sea continued to rise with a shipwreck off the Libyan coast on 24 January, claiming the lives of at least 17 people. In the first four weeks of this year, 105 people are known to have lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrant Project.

As stated by IOM Libya’s Maritime Update, 452 people were returned to Libya in the week of 19 to 25 January, including 82 survivors of the lethal shipwreck on 24 January. While the Italian government has recently praised its cooperation with Libya, ECRE member ASGI has submitted a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Auditors in Rome, pointing out critical issues concerning the engagement of Italian NGOs in Libyan detention centres – activities that are supported by Italian development funds. In particular, ASGI notes that “Italian NGOs seem to have carried out a series of actions pursuing the benefit not of the detainees but of the detention facilities” and is concerned that this may have facilitated future detention of migrants in “conditions that are hopelessly inhuman” and at places well known for torture and other human rights violations.

The disembarkation in Sicily of 374 survivors rescued in three operations within the time span of 48 hours by the Ocean Viking was concluded on 26 January. According to SOS Mediterranee, the NGO operating the civil rescue vessel, 165 of the survivors were minors, including 21 below the age of four. A woman in the late stage of a high-risk pregnancy was evacuated prior to the disembarkation by the Italian coastguard due to her urgent need for medical care. 70 people who had been rescued off the Libyan coast by an Italian commercial ship disembarked in Lampedusa.

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Photo: ECRE

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