Stop the mass dying at sea!

Six shipwrecks and almost 200 deaths off Libya in September!

A deflating rubber boat with 86 people in distress on 22 September, spotted by Seabird


Once again, hundreds of people have died in the Central Mediterranean Sea over just a few days, and once again European authorities keep silent. Once again, those who survived are alive only thanks to the efforts of local fishermen who rescued them. And once again, Fortress Europe has demonstrated its deadly violence against people seeking to cross borders and find safety.

Between 14 and 25 September, Alarm Phone was alerted by hundreds of people who were in distress at sea. Whilts some of the people who reached out to us were rescued by Alan Kurdi, many others did not make it to Europe but were pushed back to Libya, and therewith to the war and torture they risked their lives to escape from.

Unfortunately, several people were not able to reach out to Alarm Phone when they were in distress at sea and were only able to call us after they had returned to land, informing us on how they survived shipwrecks, how they watched their friends die at sea, and how those who survived were alive only due to the intervention of brave fishermen.

More than 190 people have died off the Libyan coast over just a few days. In the second part of this report we reconstruct each event according to the information we have gathered, mostly thanks to testimonies of survivors and fishermen. We have have gathered testimonies and documented the following shipwrecks:

  • On 14 September, 22 people were reported dead after a shipwreck off Libya.
  • On 18 September, at least 20 people went missing and are feared to have died following a shipwreck off Zawiya.
  • On the same day, fishermen rescued 51 out of 54 people in two separate interventions, but they arrived too late for at least three people who died off Garabulli.
  • On 19 September, a fisherman rescued more than 100 people off Zuwara, but upon their arrival on land, two people jumped from the pier to escape arrest and died.
  • On 21 September, the deadliest shipwreck recorded this year killed more than 110 people. Only 9 people were eventually rescued by a fisherman.
  • On 22 September, people in distress who reached out to Alarm Phone, reported that 4 people had jumped or fallen into the water, and their fate is still unclear. Seabird spotted several people in the water just before interception by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. Their fate is unclear and we fear the worst.
  • On 25 September, IOM reported another shipwreck where 16 people lost their lives.
  • On the same day, a boat in distress reached out to Alarm Phone and reported that at least two people on board had died – Seabird spotted the case the next day and reported 3 deaths. A day later, on 26. September, IOM reported that survivors testified to 15 deaths in this case.

This is the second time within one month that we find ourselves writing a report about multiple shipwrecks that occurred off the Libyan coast. As with the dramatic shipwrecks we reported in August, most of those that happened in September were neither recognised by any official organisation nor by authorities. With the exception of a few, we only heard of these tragic deaths at sea because traumatised survivors or brave fishermen reached out to Alarm Phone to make their voices heard.

The several shipwrecks that happened in the past days are the result of the violent border regime financed by Europe. They are the result of the confiscation of the much needed rescue ships and of the grounding of the counter-surveillance aircraft Moonbird. They are the result of the production of a lethal rescue gap that is currently filled only by a few fishermen who risk their lives and their freedom to prevent the mass dying at sea.

Those who survive these shipwrecks are often left alone, they hide to prevent arrest and detention, or they are arrested by Libyan authorities and militias and detained for months.

As a survivors told us this week:

This is the life we face in Libya. What we do is what we have to do to survive. Many people in Libya don’t want to take the sea, but we are left with no option. We prefer to die in the sea than to die on this land. I do not understand why people in Europe speak about solidarity, where is this solidarity? What does it mean? This is a question I always have in my mind.”

We do not know how to answer this question. We know that many people struggle against Fortress Europe to end its violence, but this is not enough. We are tired of telling shipwreck survivors and victims of torture in Libya that there is nothing we can do for them. We are tired of seeing people losing their lives at sea, and of seeing that nobody cares. We are tired of spending hours on the phone with people in distress without being able to reassure them that rescue is coming, and hours trying to reach authorities who neglect their duties to rescue boats in distress.

We are tired, but we will not give up. Our solidarity is fuelled by our struggle to end the dying at sea and to try to bring those to account who are responsible for these atrocities. We want to render visible the violence that Europe seeks to hide away. We are sorry that this solidarity can produce only small cracks in the walls of Fortress Europe, but we will not be discouraged. Echoing the words of our friend from Moonbird: “the struggle against Fortress Europe is not over and we believe that we will win”.

We again emphasise that the so-called Libyan Coast Guard was invented by European states and institutions not with the intention to rescue but only to force people back to Libya. We experience that they follow orders to patrol the European borders but are rarely reachable in case of distress and delay rescue or simply do not assist. Also merchant vessels involved in distress cases follow orders to wait for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to push back people instead of fulfilling their duty to save lives at sea.

Europe defines solidarity as a “return sponsorship” that will strengthen European collaborations on deporting people who seek to live in Europe in peace. We define solidarity as standing with those who Europe wants to deter, deport, or drown out.

First shipwreck: 22 people died and 45 survivors detained.

IOM reported that on Monday 14 September, a boat was rescued by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. They arrived too late for 22 people, mostly from Egypt, who died after the boat capsized off Libya. Only two bodies were recovered, whilst at least 20 people are missing. Upon their return to Libya, the 45 survivors were immediately imprisoned in the detention centre of Zawiya.

Second shipwreck: At least 20 people feared to have drowned.

On Thursday 17 September, a white rubber boat that had departed from Zawiya capsized. There were around 75 people on board. A woman who survived the shipwreck reached out to Alarm Phone in the following days. She explained that when they went out to sea, the bad weather and high waves damaged the rubber boat and that after two to three hours of navigation, it was clear that too much water was entering the boat. They decided to turn back but, before the boat reached the coast, the boat capsized. All the passengers, none of whom were wearing life jackets, were thrown into the water.

She reported to us:

“I saw many babies and women die, they couldn’t swim and they just went under. I saw some of the lifeless bodies around me. I myself was trapped by some of the wood from the dinghy and I thought that I would die. Someone managed to pull me up to the surface and drag me back to land. Those of us who made it back to land scattered as soon as we were out of the water. We were so afraid to be caught by the police. Life in Libya is not the normal life. It is especially very hard for the women. We are exposed to the worst violence. Sometimes we are forced to have intercourse with the smugglers. I have lost all my hope and money here. It is the fourth time I try to escape by the sea. I lost my son in the last shipwreck I was part of, I think of him everyday. I don’t know how I will make it out of Libya.”

Since the shipwreck happened at night, it was difficult for the survivor to estimate the number of victims but she told us that at least 20 people went missing and probably lost their life.  (Nationalities: Somalia, Cameroun, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea). She says she saw at least five bodies of children or babies, and at least one pregnant woman amongst them.

Third shipwreck: three people died at sea.

On Saturday 19 September, another rubber boat was in severe distress off Garabulli. That night a fisherman reached out to Alarm Phone, and he informed us that, a few hours earlier, he had found a deflating rubber boat with 54 people on board. He could rescue only 21 people, including all the 7 women who were on board, and he had to leave 33 people behind. He had tried to contact the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, but nobody responded. He then tried to mobilise his network of fishermen. The following day, on Sunday 20 September, he reached out to Alarm Phone again to confirm that another fisherman had responded to his call, reached the boat, and rescued 30 people who were clinging on the remains of the rubber boat. Unfortunately, it was too late for at least 3 people who died before the second fisherman could intervene.

Fourth shipwreck: two people died in Zuwara port whilst escaping arrest.

On the same day, on Saturday 19 September a boat that had departed from Zuwara with 102 people on board was rescued by a fisherman after they had spent 18 hours in the water. Whilst the fisherman rescued all the shipwrecked, two of them died after reaching the Zuwara port. As they were about to be arrested and taken to prison, they tried to escape. They jumped from the pier and unfortunately hit their heads on the rocks and died. The other survivors are currently detained in Zuwara, while a few managed to escape.

A survivor told us the story of Hadi, one of the two people who died at Zuwara port:

Hadi, one of the too many victims of borders violence

“Hadi was from Ghana, Kumasi, in the Ashanti region. He was 29 years old. His nickname is Puyaka. I don’t know if he had children back at home. He was a humble person. We arrived in Libya together in 2017, and he stayed in Zuwara for two years before taking that boat. He had already tried to cross in 2017 and in 2018, but he was taken back to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard. This time he tried to escape because he had been in prison before and he knew what was waiting for him. He would have done anything for not going back to prison. They ask you to pay a lot of money, and if you cannot pay you have to stay there 6 or 7 months. Even if you are a 5 months old child you have to pay 500 dinar to get out. Hadi did not want to go back to prison. Here it does not matter if you commit a crime or not, they can take you for any reason and put you in prison to take all your money.”

Fifth Shipwreck: 111 people missing, feared dead

The most lethal shipwreck reported in 2020 occurred on Monday 21 September, and more than 110 people lost their life. A grey rubber boat with at least 120 people on board, including women and children, started sinking off Sabratha. Just one hour after they left the shore, their engine failed. A tube burst and the rubber boat deflated. The people in distress asked for help, but were not heard. According to a survivor, only nine of the people who were on board, including a woman, managed to survive by clinging to the wooden plank and were rescued by a fisherman after several days at sea. Unfortunately, the other 111 people who were on board are currently missing. Many of the missing were from Cameroon, Niger, Mali, Sudan, Guinea and  Ivory Coast. The survivors we spoke to told us that they are traumatised and exhausted, and that they are suffering from severe burns.

“Everyone sank around us. We stayed three days in the water before a fisherman came to rescue us. Because of the salt water and gasoline, we have burns all over our body. Some of us have paralyzed limbs. We are weak. We are not well. We need support.”

The survivor we spoke to sent us pictures of some of the people who were killed in this tragic event, including those of Fatim, Oumar and their four children.

Fatim, Oumar and their 3 children


A shipwreck in the making: several missing people and 12 hours of non-assistance.

On Tuesday 22 September, a boat in distress with 86 people on board alerted Alarm Phone. We immediately alerted all authorities, and we could track a Frontex airplane monitoring the boat in distress from above. After our alert, it took about 12 hours for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to intervene. Whilst we were on the phone with the people in distress, they told us that the day before four people had fallen into the water and due to bad communication it was impossible to understand whether they went missing or whether they returned to the boat.

Seabird spotted the boat with 86 people in distress

In the afternoon of Tuesday 22 September, Seabird spotted the boat. It had a deflating tube and several people were in the water. Seabird sent a Mayday Relay. After Seabird left, the people were intercepted on behalf of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard – about 12 hours after our first alert. According to the Seabird crew, they didn’t know if the people in the water were rescued. The survivors who were captured by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard were then imprisoned at Tarik Al Sikka detention centre, one of the most inhuman and violent detention centres in Libya. According to UNHCR the survivors did not report any missing people to them at the disembarkation. 

Another shipwreck in the making: 15 people drowned off Al Khoms.

Approximately 115 people in distress called Alarm Phone at 22:26 on thursday 24 September, telling us their boat was capsizing and they have dead bodies on board. They had fled Al Khums on 23 September on a black rubber boat. Due to bad connection the reception of a proper GPS position was difficult. Alarm Phone alerted the so-called Libyan Coast Guard via phone on 25 September at 00:31am about the severe distress situation and was told they would send a vessel. At 00:55 the so-called Libyan Coast Guard stated on the phone that two vessels had reached the people in distress, whereas the people on the boat did not confirm via phone that any rescue was in sight yet. At 03:02 the people managed to send their GPS position 34°04N 014°04E via Thuraya SMS, which we forwarded to authorities. The people in distress reported that water was entering the boat and that the engine was broken. At 4:45 a tracking platform showed the merchant vessel Cape Guinea 8nm near the last position of the boat. After 05:02 we were not able to reconnect with the boat again.

At 13:17 the airplane Seabird arrived on scene and spotted the boat. From the air, the crew had to witness one person drowning and two people in the water. The vessel Cape Guinea, which had sheltered the boat in distress for about 12 hours, started to leave the scene.  According to the Seabird crew, at 12:46 the merchant vessel had informed the so-called Libyan Coast Guard that one person was in the water and asked them to speed up. When Seabird informed the vessel Cape Guinea about its duty to render assistance, they were told that the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and MRCC Rome had given the order to the merchant vessel to leave the scene.

According to the Seabird crew, the so-called Libyan Coast Guard vessel PB206 Al-Kifah arrived at 13:29 and took the people in the water onboard but refused to recover the dead body. After they intercepted the people on the rubber boat, they reported to Seabird that there were two more dead bodies on board.

Authorities therefore intervened only 12 hours after the first alert about the distress case. The merchant vessel Cape Guinea sheltered the people for many hours, but did not take the people on board and waited for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to capture them and bring them back to Libya. Later on, IOM reported that after the disembarkation at Abusitta DC (at 22:00 on 25 September), survivors reported that 15 people drowned when their rubber dinghy started to deflate: nine men from Ghana, two men from Sudan, and four persons of other nationalities.

Sixth Shipwreck: 16 people died off Al Khoms

Also on Friday 25 September IOM reported that a fisherman had rescued a boat in distress off Khoms. The fisherman was able to rescue 22 of the 38 people in distress. According to their report, the remains of 3 people were retrieved, whilst 13 people are missing. The people had attempted to flee Libya on a rubber boat on the night of 23 September from Zliten.


We express our solidarity with the families and friends of the dead and the missing. We are devastated that we were not able to do more and prevent these losses and disappearances. We promise to continue in our fight against Europe’s deadly borders and for a just world where everyone is free to move.


Alarm Phone 28/09/2020