This week, three of the nine survivors of the tragedy that in April 2011 claimed the lives of 63 refugees who were left to die at sea have filed a complaint at the Brussels Tribunal of First Instance against the Belgian army for failing to provide assistance to persons in distress. 

The complaint, lodged with the support of a coalition of NGOs, alleges that in April 2011, Belgian’s military forces present in the area received distress signals from the boat of refugees fleeing the conflict in Libya and failed to respond, violating the obligation to assist persons in danger.

Father Mussie Zerai who runs the refugee rights organisation Habeshia, received a distress call from the boat’s satellite phone and contacted the Italian coastguard. Coastguard officials assured him that that the military vessels present in the area had been alerted of the situation.

However, an investigation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), published in April 2012, shows that no one went to the aid of this boat, despite a distress call logged by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, which pinpointed the boat’s position. There were also a number of alleged direct contact between the boat in distress and other vessels, including a helicopter that dropped biscuits and water, but never returned, two fishing vessels, both of which refused to provide assistance, and a large military vessel which came into close contact with the boat, but ignored obvious distress signals. “Many opportunities for saving the lives of the persons on board the boat were lost”, the report concludes.

Today, fresh evidence has emerged that over 200 people fleeing Syria died on 11 October in the Mediterranean when they could have been saved. Tineke Strik, PACE Rapporteur on lives lost in the Mediterranean, has deplored that no lessons have been learned from the 2011 tragedy she investigated. L’Espresso has reported how a disagreement between Italy and Malta over who should take responsibility for rescue caused delays in providing assistance to the boat in the waters between Lampedusa and Malta.

It is estimated that over 2,000 people died or disappeared in the Mediterranean in 2011 alone, despite the massive presence of military vessels in the area. A proposal to clarify rules on interception at sea during Frontex operations has faced opposition from the governments of Malta, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Spain and France.

The NGO coalition supporting the survivors of the April 2011 tragedy also calls into question the responsibility of Italian, French, Spanish, British, Canadian and U.S military forces present in the area. The survivors have already lodged complaints in Italy, France and Spain and requests for information have been submitted under freedom of information laws in the UK, the US and Canada, in order to obtain details on the precise positions and actions of their armed forces at the time of these events. The NGO Coalition supporting the applicants comprises the following organisations: The Aire Centre, Agenzia Habeshia, Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana (ARCI), Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione (ASGI), Boats4People, Canadian Centre for International Justice, Coordination et initiatives pour réfugiés et immigrés (Ciré), Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (FIDH), Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigré.e.s (GISTI), Ligue belge des droits de l’Homme (LDH), Ligue française des droits de l’Homme (LDH), Migreurop, Progress Lawyers Network, Euro – Mediterranean Human Rights Network, Unione Forense per la Tutela dei Diritti Umani (UFTDU). 



This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 29 November 2013
You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.