Four shipwrecks in one week off Libya

 

“We will flee from our home, we will flee towards exile, but migration is also cruel, it’s unbearable! It will absorb our souls inevitably”

– Abdel Wahab Latinos

 

This is the last poem written by the Sudanese poet, Abdel Wahab Latinos before he lost his life at sea, along with 44 others who died during a terrible shipwreck on 16 August. These words, his name, his picture are rare details that emerge from the black hole of the Mediterranean sea. Too often it is impossible to retrieve any information on those who die here, who go missing, their names, their faces. As if the fate of the people who attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea do not matter. As if it does not matter if there was one, two, five shipwrecks.

Image: Abdel Wahab Latinos

Between 13 and 20 of August, our Alarm Phone kept ringing: in total, nearly 900 people on 14 boats have called Alarm Phone during the last week. Around 100 of them have been returned to Libya, about 540 people reached Europe. More than 100 people died or went missing, whilst the fate of a further 160 people remains unknown. In addition, we were contacted by relatives of about 200 more people on 5 boats which tried to reach Europe, but did not call Alarm Phone while in distress.

Over the past few days relatives, friends and survivors have reached out to us. It became almost impossible to keep up with the flow of information we received about the multiple shipwrecks that took place off the Libyan coast in the past week.

After days spent collecting testimonies from survivors, speaking to relatives of the missing people and cross-checking all the information we had gathered about boats in distress, we can now confirm that at least four shipwrecks took place in the central Mediterranean between 17 and 20 August. Several bodies have washed ashore the Mediterranean coast since.

All of these shipwrecks could have been prevented. For two of them, authorities were directly informed by Alarm Phone, but they refused to intervene and instead let people die at sea.

The first shipwreck, which happened between 16 and 17 August, was not just a shipwreck. People were shot at by a group of 5 men, and their boat caught fire. Forty five people were killed. Those who did survive are alive only because a local fisherman rescued them. Contrary to what was reported by the UNHCR and IOM, the boat had been at sea since 15 August. They had called Alarm Phone several times in the afternoon of that day, as we published in our latest statement. We had reported 65 people on board, but in later testimonies the survivors said there were 82 instead. We alerted all authorities, but nobody went to rescue them.

 

“The Europeans let people drown and take them to Libya, because it is easy for them.” 

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe what happened to us. We drowned and there was fire everywhere! Nobody came! Some ship could have saved us! But no one came. Thanks to the fisherman who saved us, we are still alive.”

– Survivors of the 16/17 August shipwreck

 

Many of the survivors were later placed in detention, others were freed, but they are still in need of urgent medical help as they suffered severe burns in the fire that engulfed their boat (see also reports by Annalisa Camilli and Nello Scavo).

The second shipwreck took place just a day later. There were approximately 95 people on board, just 65 of them survived. They were on board a white rubber boat and called Alarm Phone on the morning of 18 August. Whilst we were on the phone, a tube burst.

After this sound, silence. We tried to call the boat for two more days, but nobody answered the phone. We tried to mobilise a rescue by the Libyan, Italian and Maltese coastguards, but nobody intervened. A fisherman eventually rescued the 65 survivors on 19 August, but more than 30 people are reported missing.

Below is a detailed timeline of these first two shipwrecks; the two boats Alarm Phone was in contact with. In addition, we present a report about two further shipwrecks which we have learned also occurred in the past week.

These two additional shipwrecks were reported to Alarm Phone, though the people in distress did not call us directly from the sea.

The first of these, a third shipwreck was reported by the presumed only survivor who was on board a wooden boat with 40 people. According to his testimony, the boat sank off the Libyan coast on 15 August, and everybody drowned. He was rescued by a fisherman.

A fourth shipwreck on 18 August was reported off Tunisia. Eighteen people left Jdareya, 3 people drowned, and 15 were rescued by the Tunisian Coastguard, close to Tunisia.

The following reconstructions bring together the testimonies of survivors and the actions undertaken by Alarm Phone to support them when they were in distress.

These events show once more, that the so-called Libyan Coastguard is often ready to capture migrant boats before they reach European Search and Rescue (SAR) zones, or to even conduct illegal pushbacks from the Maltese SAR zone. However, they refuse to intervene when they are asked to rescue people who are drowning off their own shores. It is not a coincidence that the most lethal shipwrecks this year happened just off the Libyan shore, including the one on 9 February where 91 people lost their lives, and the one off Tajoura on 29 July, where at least 40 people are missing, feared dead. This is what Europe and Italy support with millions of Euros.

Europe, these deaths are your responsibility.

Shipwreck reconstructions[1] 

FIRST SHIPWRECK

82 people shot at, and the boat catches fire.
~ 45 deaths – 17 August 2020

A white rubber boat with 82 people on board (Alarm Phone initially reported 65 people) left Zuwara in the early hours of the morning of 15 August.

Approximately 12 hours later their engine broke, and the people in distress tried to phone several authorities as well as Alarm Phone (see Alarm Phone full report for more details).

At 16:48 they reached Alarm Phone and read their GPS position (33N252416, 12E38249), which showed them in international waters, just outside Libyan territorial waters.

At 17:40, after confirming their GPS position, we alerted the so-called Libyan Coastguard.

At 18:23 we sent the updated GPS position (33°24’N, 12°11’E) to all authorities via email, and we tried to reach both the so-called Libyan Coastguard and the Armed Forces of Malta on the phone, but neither answered our calls. MRCC Rome only said the GPS positions could not be correct.

Only at 19:15 were we able to reach the so-called Libyan Coastguard again. The officer said we should also inform Tunisian authorities, which we did, however the Tunisian authorities said only that we should call back on Monday as they were not working until then.

At 20:24, a Libyan officer told us he could not confirm a search and rescue operation would take place, because the engine of their patrol vessels had problems and they had two other targets.

Image: Alarm Phone tweets – 15 August

At 22:19, we tried to reach the so-called Libyan Coastguard again, to no avail.

The last time we were able to reconnect with the people in distress was at 22:25 on 15 August, when the person on the phone was panicking and screaming, saying that people were about to die and that they needed immediate help. This was our last contact with the people in distress. Since then, we have regularly called them, but without success.

Testimonies by Survivors

It was only days later, on Wednesday 19 August, that we managed to find out what happened to the people in distress, when the survivors were back in Libya and some of them reached out to Alarm Phone to report what happened.

Image: Survivors of the 17 August shipwreck

Over the phone, three survivors of this incident provided the following testimony:

Our GPS was broken, so we didn’t know exactly where we were. We just drove without knowing where we were going. We saw a place(?), but it was very far away from us. But we still did not know where north and west were – we were still disoriented. Our engine broke down, but then it worked again and again for about 10 minutes and then it didn’t work again. Then we drove again, but were still disoriented.

The next day, a plane filmed us. We thought that it was a rescue attempt.[…] Later the engine again stopped working. Then we noticed that we were drifted westwards by the current. Three Tunisians found us, we told them we were heading for Italy or Malta. They informed us that we were very far from our destination. We wanted to return to Libya. The three Tunisians helped fix our engine and set our GPS to Zuwara.

After an hour we met a boat. On the boat was written: Captain Salam 181. Three Egyptians and two Lybians were on it, armed with weapons. They asked us if we had a Thuraya mobile phone. The deal was, they get the phone and they take us back to shore. The waves were very high. We agreed, we just wanted to get back to shore. So we gave them the phone. They gave us a rope, we held on to it and they headed ashore for 4, 5 hours.

Then they stopped and told us to give them the GPS-device. We did that. Then they asked for our phones, which we handed out. We really just wanted to go ashore, as we had nothing to eat or drink. They told us: “You have dollars too, you have to give us the money too”. We were near the shore, so they turned around and went in the opposite direction. They kept telling us: “If you don’t give us the money, you will die”. We told them to stop. So they took the rope and shot the boat. People drowned, there was fire everywhere, some died. Some couldn’t swim.

A small fishing boat came, it saw us and it came towards us. It was night and the waves were high. He stayed with us until morning [according to our reconstruction this was in the early hours of 17 August]. 40 people died that night.

43 survived[2], about 10 of us have burn injuries. Some are very badly injured and can no longer see. One has a broken leg […]. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe what happened to us. We drowned and there was fire everywhere! Nobody came! Some ship could have saved us! But no one came.

Thanks to the fisherman[3] who saved us, we are still alive. We were saved and put in jail. Some have been released, others will probably be released today or tomorrow.

You, the NGOs, just know that Libya is not a country to live in. We have to leave. It is unbearable what we are experiencing here. You have to do something. Urgently! The Europeans make it easy for themselves, they let people drown and take them to Libya, because it is easy for them. We can do nothing here, we have no prospects. You work for a month and then someone comes and takes your money. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. It’s not a country. We’re afraid we can’t go out in the streets. We thank you very much and hope that we all stay healthy.

 

Second Shipwreck

The sound of a burst tube and the silence of the authorities.
~30 missing people – 18 August 2020

On Tuesday 18 August, at 10:14, a boat in distress reached out to Alarm Phone. The approximately 100 people on board told us they escaped Zuwara, in Libya the night before. Their engine was still working but very slowly. Whilst the person on the phone was reading their GPS position (33°23N, 12°12E at 10:18) showing the boat 55nm off Zuwara, in international waters, the sound of a tube bursting was audible. Immediately following this we could hear loud screams and the person on the phone explained that a tube of the rubber boat had burst. The call then cut off.

Alarm Phone immediately informed all authorities – the so-called Libyan Coastguard, MRCC Rome, RCC Malta, Frontex and EuNavforMed – about the boat in distress with a deflating tube, first via email and following that, by phone.

After this dramatic distress call from the approximately 100 people, Alarm Phone tried to reach the people again for the next 48 hours, but in vain: we were never able to reconnect with the boat again. The Thuraya phone of the people did not ring anymore.

At 10:49 Alarm Phone reached the so-called Libyan Coastguard via phone to urge them to send immediate rescue.

At 11:04 Alarm Phone again reached MRCC Rome, who repeated that the Libyan Coastguard is the responsible authority. When we tried again to call the so-called Libyan Coastguard to ask if they launched a rescue operation, all their numbers were unreachable. Only at 14:01 were we able to reach them on one of their numbers. They informed Alarm Phone that they were not able to search for the boat in distress, due to technical problems with their offshore vessel.

At 14:30 we called MRCC Rome and again demanded an intervention, but once again they refused responsibility or to take any action.

At 15:27 we sent another email to all authorities, demanding they finally take responsibility and act.

As the Libyan Coastguard was not reachable, at 16:55 we asked MRCC Rome about what action they were taking to make sure the people in distress would be rescued, as the so-called Libyan Coastguard was not reachable and did not have capacities to launch a rescue operation. The MRCC officer refused responsibility and kept explaining that they would not do anything without a new GPS-position – despite us telling him that the boat was unreachable since the initial call.

At 17:55 the Frontex airplane Eagle 1 circled around the area of the distress position (33°23N, 12°12E).

Image: Frontex airplane Eagle 1 track – 18 August

More than 12 hours later, at 23:20 the merchant vessel “Vos Aphrodite” stopped for about 30 minutes in the position of the boat in distress (33°23’N, 12°12’E) before leaving, heading north.

Image: Vos Aphrodite track – 18 August

Testimonies by survivors

On 21 August, some of the survivors reached out to Alarm Phone. They confirmed that they were calling Alarm Phone when the tube of the rubber boat burst. According to them, 95 people (others report up to 120 people) – among them people from Nigeria, Ghana and Eritrea, including women and children– left Zuwara on the night of 17 August on a white rubber boat. After the tube deflated in the morning of 18 August, some people fell in the water and drowned. Others died while trying to reach a fishing boat nearby. Others managed to hold onto the remains of the rubber boat until the next day, the 19 of August, when a fisherman rescued the survivors and brought them back to Libya. 

Of the approximately 100 people on board, according to the testimonies only 65 survived this dramatic shipwreck of 18 August. No authority felt responsible to act on our distress calls, despite the emergency of the situation and the information that the Libyan Coastguard was not able to start a rescue operation. As a result, more and more bodies now are being found.

 

TWO MORE SHIPWRECKS between Libya and Tunisia

33 people missing, 6 dead, one survivor.

Alarm Phone has been contacted by the presumed only survivor of a third shipwreck. Although his boat was not in contact with Alarm Phone while they were in distress at sea, he reported that he was one of 40 people from various African countries (among them Tunisian, Egyptian, Gambian and Guinean), who fled Libya on a blue wooden boat at 01:00 on the night of 15 August.

The boat was in a poor condition from the very beginning and got into trouble after about 4 hours of travel: it was early morning at 5:00 when the people got into distress close to Tunisia. The survivor was able to cling onto a petrol can that kept him alive for the next 10 hours. In the late afternoon, a fishing vessel spotted him, rescued him and brought him back to shore in Dschansur, west of Tripoli in Libya. He has suffered many burns from a mix of petrol and sea water.

Three bodies that washed ashore near Zarzis seem to be related to this tragedy and three more people are confirmed dead.

Thirty three people are still missing, among them women and children and the brother of the survivor.

A fourth shipwreck was reported off Tunisia. Eighteen people from Ben Guerden left Jdareya, three people drowned and 15 were rescued by Tunisian fishermen after their engine stopped working close to Tunisia. The people left on Tuesday 18 August and were rescued the following day.

 

 

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[1] This report is a result of testimonies of shipwreck survivors that contacted us after they reached Libya. Some information is missing. We seek to follow up each shipwreck with survivors and people informed of the events in order to gain a clearer picture of each event.

[2] This numbers do not perfectly match with those given by the IOM, reporting 37 survivors.

[3] According to journalist Nancy Porsia, a police officer who was spending the night fishing on the dock off Abu Kammash, heard the screams coming from the sea. As no boats from the so-called Libyan Coastguard were available, the police officer took a fishing boat and went out to rescue the migrants. According to this reconstruction, they rescued about 35 people first, and later on went back and rescued 26 more people. This adds up to 61 people rescued, which is a higher number than the reported 35 survivors. As testimonies are conflicting, it is still unclear if the rescued belonged to one or two shipwrecks which coincidentally happened on the same day.

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