Malta was primarily responsible for the rescuing of 200 people, including 60 children, who drowned in 2013, however, it was Italy that failed to protect their right to life, the UN Human Rights Committee has found.
The boat full of some 400 Syrians and Palestinians had capsized after taking in water south of Lampedusa and soon after, rapporteur of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly Tineke Strik had called for an investigation into alleged delays in the rescue operation.
A joint complaint was meanwhile lodged with the human rights committee by three Syrians and a Palestinian national who survived the accident but lost their families.
On October 10 of 2013, they arrived in Zuwarah, Libya, where they joined a large group of people who had fled war-torn Syria. They set to sea around 1am but in a few hours, water started flooding in after the vessel was shot by a boat flying a Berber flag in international waters, 113 km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa and 218 km south of Malta.
According to the report by the Office of the High Commissioner for
Human Rights, one of those on board called the Italian number for emergencies at sea several times, only to be told more than 12 hours later that they were in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone.
Despite the emergency, the Italian operator only passed on to them the phone number of Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre.
The migrants made several calls to the centre and the Armed Force of Malta between 1pm and 3pm. When a Maltese patrol boat arrived at the scene at 5.50pm, the vessel had already capsized and following Malta’s urgent request, Italy finally instructed its navy ship ITS Libra, which was in the vicinity, to come to the rescue after 6pm.
As a result of the delayed action, over 200 people, including 60 children, drowned, OHCHR said.
Surviving migrants took the Italian authorities to various courts and to the committee. A parallel claim brought against Malta was rejected by the committee as the plaintiffs did not bring legal proceedings before courts in Malta, which is one of the requirements, prior to filing their case.
According to the victims, the Italian and Maltese rescue centres tried to pass responsibility for the rescue operation to one another instead of intervening promptly.
But while the committee noted that “the principal responsibility for the rescue operation lies with Malta, since the capsizing occurred in its search and rescue area, and since it undertook in writing responsibility for the search and rescue operation”, it said Italy had not provided a clear explanation “for what appears to be a failure to promptly respond to the distress call, prior to the assumption of responsibility for the search and rescue operation by the Maltese authorities”.
'A complex case'
For committee member Hélène Tigroudja, it is a complex case: “The accident happened in international waters within the Maltese search-and-rescue zone but the location was indeed closest to Italy and to one of its naval ships.
“Had the Italian authorities immediately directed its naval ship and coast guard boats after the distress calls, the rescue would have reached the vessel at the latest two hours before it sank,” Tigroudja said.
“State parties are required under the international law of the sea to take steps to protect the lives of all individuals who find themselves in a situation of distress at sea. 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,” Tigroudja added.
The committee called on Italy to proceed with an independent and timely investigation and to prosecute those responsible. Italy and other countries involved in the tragedy also need to provide effective remedy to those who lost their families in the accident.
In a decision published this week, the Human Rights Committee said that Italy had failed to respond promptly to various distress calls from the sinking boat.
What the survivors had said
‘The sea swallowed my wife and children in one go’
Ahmed Khalid lost his wife and seven children overnight and to add to the pain of the tragedy, he was kept away from his two surviving daughters who had been taken to Lampedusa.
He spoke to Times of Malta from his container at the Ħal Far open centre. Behind him, the black suit he wore for one of his daughter’s funeral hung from the ceiling.
“I still cannot understand why families were split up, and some were taken to Lampedusa, and others brought here. When we capsized we were scattered all over, but aboard the army vessels we were told we were all being taken to Lampedusa. It wasn’t until I landed that I realised none of my children had been brought to the same island.”
‘I lost my wife and little girl... but at least found Malta’
Dr Ayman Mostafa spent two clinging to a plank in the freezing Mediterranean sea, wading through the debris and dead bodies trying to identify his wife and daughter.
He recalled that the night before the tragedy, together with his late wife Fatama and daughter Joud, he had been transferred to a “big boat” from rubber dinghies.
“When I saw the rickety boat I knew this would be the last day of my life. I looked at my wife and there was no need for any words – we knew we were going to die. The traffickers waved goodbye and told us, ‘when you’re going to die say there is one god and Mohammed is our prophet’.”
'Children’s screams haunt my dreams'
The Syrian/Palestinian boy showed Times of Malta a picture showing a green helicopter hovering over the sea and, below it, some stick men and women are raising their skinny arms for help. Five figures are seen floating in the water.
“The scariest moment was when we were on the boat that had just left Libya. If I get to be a 100 years old, I will never forget it.
“When the boat started sinking I just heard children and women screaming. I wasn’t near my parents... I just heard my daddy and my mummy calling my name. I was very tired, I just raised my arms and tried to scream. But my throat hurt because of the salt water and my head hurt because I had hit it against the boat."