„The waves were big. The more we stayed, more people drowned, 4 people, 2 people, 3 people.“
In mid November, the world cried out loud about the violent death of 6-months old Yusuf, who died on board of the rescue vessel Open Arms, after the dinghy he was crossing the Central Med on capsized. His fate is cruel but not singular. Since 1 November alone, 132 deaths were reported to Alarm Phone only in the Central Mediterranean route. All these deaths are the results of shipwrecks, many of which could have been avoided if only authorities responded adequately to the distress calls.
As usual, the so-called Libyan Coastguard is not available in time or available at all when it comes to rescuing people in distress. They are quick, however, in intercepting migrant boats that are attempting to reach Europe. At the same time, the EU-member states, not only provide funds and resources to the so-called Libyan coastguards for either capturing people or letting them die, but they also prevent civil rescue vessels to conduct search and rescue operations. In November, only the Open Arms managed to be out at sea – even if just for a few days: its presence alone, unfortunately, could not prevent some shipwrecks, but it was able to prevent the worst.
During the good weather period of mid November, hundreds of people on many precarious boats attempted to escape from Libya, and many of these called Alarm Phone when in distress at sea. In all these cases, Open Arms was the only rescue asset responding to our distress alerts.
On 10 November, 88 people in distress on a white rubber boat called Alarm Phone from international waters. Open Arms managed to reach the boat people shortly before a tragedy would have happened: as the dramatic pictures taken by the Open Arms crew show, the bow of the rubber boat was already completely deflated and the boat was about to sink. Had the Open Arms not been at sea, 88 people would have probably drowned without leaving a trace.
On the same day, 10 November, the Alarm Phone was called from two more boats in distress off the Libyan shore, a few nautical miles away from one another: approximately 110 people on a black rubber boat and 20 people on a black fiberglass boat were asking for help. No authority responded to our emergency calls.
Only Open Arms replied to our alerts and searched for the two boats. Unfortunately, Alarm Phone lost contact after the last desperate phone calls, the night fell and Open Arms could not find either of the two boats in distress.
In the morning of 11 November, during their routine surveillance flight, a Frontex plane spotted the black rubber boat – the one with the 110 people in distress. During the night, the boat had drifted several miles south-west. Frontex informed Open Arms, which was just 20 nautical miles away, but it was too late: after reaching the people in distress and handing out life vests to all, Open Arms had to witness how the rubber boat broke into parts and how the 110 people fell into the sea. 6 people, including the 6 months old Yusuf, did not survive the tragedy.
Whilst Open Arms was searching and rescuing the 110 people on board the black rubber boat, the other fiberglass boat with 20 people on board was left unattended, drifting in the middle of the sea with no authority or rescue asset searching for them.
The 20 people had alerted Alarm Phone in the morning of 10 November, informing us that the engine did not work well. After we received the first GPS position, we alerted all authorities – but none of them responded. The people had fled Libya the night before, from the Sayad region. Later on the situation on board deteriorated and the boat was adrift.
We were able to get a last GPS position in the evening of 10 November, and we forwarded it to authorities and to Open Arms, who, however, could not find them. Our last contact to the boat was in the early morning of 11 November, when the people had already spent 24 hours drifting at sea. Alarm Phone asked authorities and Frontex for a search and rescue operation several times – but in vain.
After the last phone call at 7:44 am, we never managed to re-establish contact to the people in distress and, together with their worried relatives, we were left wondering what happened to them: were they still alive and waiting for rescue? Were they intercepted? Or had the worst happened?
Only 2 days later a survivor contacted us: he told us that himself and 2 other men survived a terrible shipwreck after the fiberglass boat capsized, on the afternoon of 11 November. Fishermen were able to rescue 3 out of 20 people that were on board, and to bring them to Zawiya. On the phone, the so-called Libyan Coastguard told us they had sent a vessel- but more than 24 hours after our first alert: too late for 17 human lives that were taken by the sea.
As one survivor told us on the phone:
„The waves were big. The more we stayed, more people drowned, 4 people, 2 people, 3 people. I was left alone. I was screaming, screaming a lot, when I almost gave up a fisherman’s boat showed up. They heard me and rescued me. I thought I was only survivor. I asked the fisherman to look around for more people. We found 2 more people. We had a Thuraya phone, they called a rescue and they spoke English. There were even airplanes flying on top of us. They didn’t rescue us. I will never forget what happened to me.. please help me as much as you can.“
Tragically, this was not the only shipwreck taking place on the deadly 11 November: on the same day, another shipwreck happened, not far away from the fiberglass boat we were in contact with: a wooden boat with 23 people on board capsized off Zawiya. Also in this case, only three people survived. Once more, three women survived only thanks to the help of fishermen who accidentally found them at sea.
Just the day before these shipwrecks, on Tuesday 10 November, the International Organisation for Migration reported that 13 people, including a child, had drowned when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast, and about 11 people survived. Unfortunately, the people had not reached out to Alarm Phone when in distress at sea.
On Thursday 12 November, whilst the world was mourning Yusuf’s deaths and watching the shocking videos shared by Open Arms, dozens of corpses washed up along Libyan shores. At least 74 people had died in yet another large shipwreck, this time off Khoms, and again 47 people survived not due to the efforts of authorities, but thanks to the brave intervention of local fishermen. The picture of a baby’s body washed on the Libyan shore circulated on social media. The baby seems about the same age as Yusuf, but in this case there was no public outcry, there was no demand for answers. This baby’s body and name, together with the hundreds who died in the Central Mediterranean sea over the course of just 4 days, will remain invisible and will be soon forgotten, in line with Europe’s hypocrisy.
Death at sea is tragic. But there is nothing more tragic than knowing that the people could have been rescued and there was a deliberate attempt to let them die. It is not the sea that is killing people, it is the violent border regime that criminalises migration, hinders rescue, and decides to let people die. It is not the sea that is killing people: it is Europe and those who want to keep it a Fortress.
(all times CET)
Tuesday, 10 November 2020
08:04 Alarm Phone was alerted by 20 people in distress on a black fiberglass boat.
08:41 The shift is able to receive a first position of the boat: 33°39, 12°44.
09:06 The people give a second position: 33°38, 012°43.
09:56 Alarm Phone alerts authorities via Email.
10:52 Alarm Phone reaches the people in distress: Water has entered the boat. The people give a new, may wrong position: 33°32, 13°06.
11:28 Alarm Phone updates the GPS-position to authorities.
12:02 Alarm Phone reaches the people in distress, but unable to receive a new position.
13:08 People in distress are calling again: they are drifting.
13:17 Alarm Phone receives a new position: 33°32, 12°42.
15-16:00 People report later that they saw a small white airplane.
18:30 Alarm Phone receives a new position at 33°29, 12°41.
18:50 Alarm Phone informs authorities again about the situation.
19:28 The people call again for help. Alarm Phone has to explain that they have to be patient, authorities are informed, they should stay calm.
19:35 The person on the phone is desperate and tired. The engine is still not working. Alarm Phone receives the same position as an hour before.
20:37 Email from Open Arms informing that they are able to give assistance to the 20 people in distress.
21:49 People call and ask for help. Alarm Phone informs them that authorities are alerted.
23:19 People call again and say, they are not ok. The shift tells them, they have to wait, the coastguards are informed.
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
02:30 Open Arms informs via email that they are still searching for the 20 people and for the black rubber boat with 110 people.
07:44 The 20 people call Alarm Phone one more time, but without providign a new position. It is the last sign of life by them.
08:43 Alarm Phone updates authorities and Open Arms about the recent contact and that the people are still at sea.
08:46 Alarm Phone calls the people, the call cannot get through: „the Thuraya number you have dialed cannot be reached at the moment“.
09:17 Alarm Phone receives an email by Open Arms who are replying to a Frontex alert about a spotting of a rubber boat in distress.
Alarm Phone tries to reach the people in distress to receive a current GPS-position: In vain.
13:09 Alarm Phone asks authorities via email including Frontex to ask for a search and rescue operation with air assets. We don’t receive an answer.
15:00 the so-called Libyan Coastguard told us later that they had sent a vessel around this time (see below)
17:00 one survivor later reports that around this time the boat started drowning.
17:35 Alarm Phone asks authorities about any outcome of any search operation. We don’t receive an answer.
21:20 Alarm Phone reaches the so-called Libyan Coastguard via phone. They say they sent a boat at about 15:00 local time, checking the area around Ras Jadar close to the border to Tunisia, according to the last GPS-position they received. They have no news and ask for info and updates. The last GPS-position that Alarm Phone received was far from Ras Jadar though.
Thursday, 12 November 2020
01:51 Alarm Phone again asks authorities for a search operation for the 20 people.
08:30 According to the flight track by Frontex’ airplane there is no search flight, but they fly their normal search pattern to detect people leaving Libya.
10:54 Again Alarm Phone asks authorities for a search flight, adding a proposal for a search pattern.
11:15 Email by Frontex informing Alarm Phone that Open Arms is heading north after 3 rescues, obviously not reading our distress alert carefully.
13:01 Alarm Phone replies to Frontex, clarifying again that the 20 people in distress are still missing and a search mission is urgently needed.
Alarm Phone shifts are still calling the phone of the 20 people in distress, convinced that they are still out at sea.
Friday, 13 November 2020
A survivor contacts Alarm Phone, reporting, that only him and two other men survived the 11 November. After more than 24 hours drifting at sea without any assistance the boat flipped and 17 people drowned.