Twelve Deaths and a Secret Push-Back to Libya

How Malta and EU authorities left people to die at sea and returned survivors to war

Twelve people have lost their lives due to European action and inaction in the Mediterranean Sea. Authorities in Malta, Italy, Libya, Portugal, Germany, as well as the EU border agency Frontex were informed about a group of 55 [eventually 63 people] in distress at sea but chose to let twelve of them die of thirst and drowning, while orchestrating the forced return of the survivors back to Libya, a place of war, torture, and rape.

As we will show in this report, and contrary to Malta’s claims, the boat had drifted within in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, not far from the Italian island of Lampedusa. All authorities have failed to intervene, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to dramatically breach the law of the sea as well as human rights and refugee conventions. Though foremost the Armed Forces of Malta, all these authorities hold responsibility for the death of twelve human beings and the suffering of dozens of others.

In the name of the victims and the survivors who are now locked away in the inhumane Tarik Al Sikka detention center in Tripoli, Libya, we hold these authorities to account for failing to intervene and rescue, as well as for proactively creating the conditions that allowed for this to occur. This case, as well as several other distress cases that the Alarm Phone has received, highlights once more the devastating effects of EU border policies on migrant lives. It is a case not only of inaction but of concerted efforts to prevent those in distress from reaching Europe, at all cost.

The Alarm Phone network, Sea-Watch and Mediterranea mobilised all their forces to prevent these deaths, in vain. We know that relatives and friends of the deceased will not get their loved ones back. And we know that those who are now again imprisoned in horrible camps in Libya will face cruelty and hardship. We tried but failed to mobilise rescue while all 63 people were still alive. We failed because European actors were set on letting them die.

In this report, we offer a detailed reconstruction of the distress case, showing clearly how it unfolded, and the ways in which Malta and other European authorities refused to rescue the people in distress. We have gathered evidence based on our direct exchanges with the people in distress at sea and their relatives, as well as testimonies of survivors after their forced return to Libya. We have collected data on movements of state and non-state assets at sea and in the air. We have a plethora of documents detailing our communication with the Armed Forces of Malta, the Italian MRCC, the so-called Libyan coastguards and other European authorities, who either refused to intervene or acted illegally. Given the wealth of information we have, we present merely some here, but more can be shared upon request.


In the night of 9 to 10 April 2020, about 55 people (later confirmed 63 people), including seven women and three children, fled Libya from Garabulli on a precarious rubber boat.

On Friday, 10 April, a Frontex aerial asset spotted three rubber boats with people on board in the Libyan SAR area, according to Frontex press statements released on 13 April to ANSA Rome (agency launch 16:14LT): “Respecting operational procedures and international laws – explains the Frontex spokeswoman – we immediately informed theMaritime Rescue Coordination Centres (Italy, Malta, Libya and Tunisia) of the exact location of the boats.”

In the night of 10 to 11 April, they reached out to Alarm Phone while in distress at sea. They said that they were embarking water and that they needed help urgently. After they shared their GPS position, which showed them in international waters (N 33°41.795′, E 013°34.0124′ received at 01:52 CEST, 11/04/2020), Alarm Phone informed relevant authorities in Malta, Italy, and Libya. Over the next hours, Alarm Phone remained in contact with the people in distress and passed new GPS positions and details of the distress situation to relevant authorities.

On Saturday, 11 April at 09:20 CEST, Alarm Phone finally reached the Libyan authorities on the phone, who stated: “The Libyan Coastguard now only does coordination work because of COVID-19, we can’t do any rescue action, but we are in contact with Italy and Malta.”

Alarm Phone kept in contact with the boat in distress. Several updated GPS positions were immediately shared with authorities. Nonetheless, the informed authorities refused to engage in, or coordinate, a rescue operation for the approximately 55 people in distress.

On Sunday, 12 April at 12:45 CEST, Alarm Phone received the position N34° 29.947′ E013° 37.803′ from the boat in distress, clearly showing it in Maltese SAR. At 14:05 CEST the people call again, asking desperately for help. After that, the contact to the people could not be re-established.

On Monday evening, 13 April, after contact with the boat had been lost for about 36 hours, and due to the increasing pressure from several actors (see distress case eventually rescued by Aita Mari), both the Italian and Maltese authorities organised air surveillance missions and finally the boat in distress was spotted again in the Maltese Search and Rescue zone at 23:45 CEST in position 35°01’N 013°06’E.

On Tuesday, 14 April, 00:21 CEST, Malta sent out a NAVTEX to all boats: “All ships transiting in the area to keep sharp lookout and assist if necessary.” The GPS position matched an estimated drifting pattern of the boat in distress with ~55 people on board. The NAVTEX, however, also stated (though in a misspelled way) that Malta would not be able to provide a place of safety.

Shortly after, the by-passing cargo ship IVAN stopped one mile away from the boat in distress, and Malta ordered them to stay at the scene and monitor the boat in distress until rescue would arrive. Due to high waves and the general adverse conditions at sea (at night and given the composition of the ship), IVAN was unable to rescue the people in distress, and also not ordered by Malta to do so . An air asset of the Armed Forces of Malta was on scene during the duration of the operation, giving orders to the IVAN and the arriving two boats.

According to testimonies gathered from the survivors, three people on the boat in distress jumped into the water to reach IVAN, and drowned. Four other people threw themselves into the sea out of desperation. In the words of a survivor: “We shouted for help and made signs. Three people tried to swim to this big boat as it started moving away. They drowned. We made signs to the aircraft with the phones and we held the baby up to show we were in distress. The aircraft saw us for sure, because it flashed us with a red light. Shortly after another boat came out of nowhere and picked us up”.

Around 05:00 CEST, a fishing vessel, and a second, yet unidentified vessel, arrived on scene and took the survivors on board, under coordination by the Armed Forces of Malta. The IVAN was ordered to leave the scene.

On Tuesday evening, the Maltese authorities told Alarm Phone that there were no more open SAR cases in the area, without providing information on the fate of this boat in distress. Italian authorities seemed to be unaware of the secret push-back, as they organised several air surveillance missions on Tuesday evening, without results.

On Wednesday morning, 15 April, Alarm Phone received the information that 56 people had been returned to Libya on board of the fishing boat. Among them, the bodies of 5 people who died during the journey due to dehydration and hunger. 7 people are missing. According to the survivors, the crew of the fishing vessel let them believe that they would be brought to safety in Europe. Instead, they were pushed back to Libya.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Maltese authorities publicly admitted they coordinated the operation.


The distress case has been known to the European authorities for six days, upon aerial sighting by a Frontex asset on April 10 (according to the agency’s press release of April 13). Since then, Malta, Italy and the EU actors with missions in the central Mediterranean Sea were aware of the situation, flagged as well by Alarm Phone in the night between April 10 and 11.

Notwithstanding the impossibility of intervention by the Libyan authorities, stated in a phone call with Alarm Phone in the morning of April 11, where the Libyan officer declared also to be in contact with Malta and Italy,  there has been no coordination and no related intervention to assist the people in distress for almost 72 hours of agony at sea, in violation of the International Law at Sea (i.e. point 3.1.9 SAR Convention, 1979). States’ obligation to ensure the safety of life at sea never fails, even if the SAR event occurs outside their region of competence (IMO Guidelines on the treatment of persons rescued at sea, par. 6.7).

According to the official Press Release of the Maltese Government, issued on April 15, Malta declared to have taken the late coordination of the SAR event by issuing a NAVTEX message in the night between April 13 and 14 , where it is specified that the country would not provide a Place of Safety, thus in violation of the mentioned legal framework.

By deciding not to proceed with a rescue and not to ensure the disembarkation in a place of safety, the Maltese government becomes responsible for having facilitated the illegal push-back of the people in distress from the Maltese SAR zone to Libya, in violation of art. 33 of the Geneva Convention, art. 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, art. 19 of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.

Alarm Phone, in collaboration with Sea-Watch and Mediterranea