Trapped at sea, waiting for rescue: 15 people killed by Fortress Europe

On 11 October 2021, Alarm Phone announced its 7th anniversary and commemorated the tragic shipwreck of 8 years earlier, 11 October 2013, when delays in rescue by Malta and Italy led to the deaths of over 200 people. On the same day, yet another tragedy unfolded off Libya and 15 people suffocated on board, while they were waiting for rescue.

As shown in the detailed timeline below, Alarm Phone had repeatedly alerted authorities to the wooden boat in distress with 105 people on board. The boat was just a few miles off the coast of Zuwara, Libya. Yet, it took about 10 hours for Libyan authorities to reach the boat. Italian authorities, on the other hand, just kept denying responsibility and refused to support a search and rescue operation. During this time, the boat was embarking water and at least 15 people, trapped on the lower deck of the wooden boat, lost their lives – probably due to the inhalation of toxic fumes.

Disturbing footage published by the Libyan Observer (TRIGGER WARNING – IMAGES OF DEAD BODIES) shows how the 15 asphyxiated people were being pulled out from the lower deck by fellow travellers. The video was shot by the so-called Libyan coastguard, who was evidently NOT helping to retrieve the bodies or checking on the health condition of the rescued – some people might still have been alive. Instead, they just watched and filmed.

In 2014, the Alarm Phone was launched with the aim of preventing deaths due to delays in rescue and non-assistance. Over the past seven years, the situation has only worsened, with the creation of the so-called Libyan search and rescue zone and the so-called Libyan coastguard.

On 11 October 2021, as in several other cases over the past years, we witnessed once again how the task of the so-called Libyan coastguard is not to rescue people, but to deter people from reaching Europe, on Europe’s behalf. To Europe, it does not matter whether people drown or are forced back to Libya: what counts is that they do not touch European soil, no matter the human costs.

This tragedy happened at the same time as thousands of migrants in Libya fear for their lives as they are being hunted down, threatened, detained, and killed by militias and police forces (see here for more information). EU member states keep on ignoring the ongoing disaster and continue their collaboration with the Libyan authorities and the UNHCR continuously claims that they cannot provide sufficient assistance.

We are angry, sad, and tired. We stand in solidarity with the families and friends of the 15 people whose lives were stolen by the EU border regime. We demand an immediate end to this organised violence, and this organised abandonment. We demand the abolition of this racist system that produces nothing but suffering and death. We demand to stop killing people at EU borders, to stop financing the so-called Libyan coastguard, to stop financing Frontex operations. We demand the freedom of movement for all.

TIMELINE – 11 October 2021

04:04 CEST – A group of about 105 people in distress calls Alarm Phone via a satellite phone. We later find out that they had departed from Zuwara the evening before. We can hear people screaming in the background. The situation on board appears very critical already in this first call and we do not manage to gather key information about the boat and its GPS position.

05:21 – After several attempts to communicate with the people in distress, we manage to receive the first GPS position of the boat: N33°07′, E12°09′.

05:35 – Alarm Phone speaks again with the people in distress to confirm the position and they read the following: N33°05′, E12°09′. The call breaks. Alarm Phone tries to re-establish contact to confirm key information, whilst being engaged in several other distress cases in other maritime regions.

06:02 – The people in distress call again and report that people are dying and that they want to be rescued as soon as possible, even if it means being returned to Libya.

06:10 – Alarm Phone sends the first mail to Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities, with several NGOs and international organisations in cc, mentioning that the travellers in distress reported that 2 people died.

06:38 – Alarm Phone tries to reach the so-called Libyan Coastguard and Zuwara Coastal Police via phone on several phone numbers, but in vain, as nobody answers the calls.

06:46 – Alarm Phone calls the Italian coastguard, Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, and informs them about the distress situation. They answer that we should try again to call Libyan authorities and hang up.

07:15 – The people in distress keep calling and say that the engine stopped, and their boat is sinking. They read an updated GPS position:  N 33°04′, E 012°10.

07:35 – We manage to reach a Lieutenant Colonel of the so-called Libyan coastguard, who asks Alarm Phone to send an updated position and promises they will send an asset.

07:40 – The people call again and read a new position: N33°04′, E012°10, which we forward to all authorities.

08:30 – Alarm Phone speaks to the people in distress again. They tell us that there are 5 pregnant women and 10 children on board. Communication keeps being difficult.

08:55 – Alarm Phone starts making public pressure for rescue and tweets: About 105 people are in danger off #Zuwara, #Libya, incl. pregnant women and approx. 10 children. According to people, the weather is deteriorating. We alerted relevant authorities and demand that a rescue operation is immediately launched! #DontLetThemDrown

10:22 – The people in distress call Alarm Phone and say that they can see a boat approaching them. They think it is a rescue asset, but eventually it does not come close enough. We then realise it was a fishing vessel which left again without helping.

10:48 – The aircraft Seabird of Sea Watch is flying towards the distress case. Seabird reports a boat roughly at N33°00′, E012°13′, and confirms that a fishing vessel in the vicinity  is leaving the scene.

11:10 – The colonel of the so-called Libyan coastguard lets Alarm Phone know that their vessel is underway, and that they will keep Alarm Phone updated.

11:56 – The people on board lose their satellite phone and keep communicating with Alarm Phone via their mobile phone and WhatsApp. Alarm Phone is also contacted by a relative of someone on the boat, who is himself in contact with the people in distress.

13:19 – The colonel of the so-called Libyan coastguard confirms their vessel is still searching but could not find the people in distress.

13:19 – Alarm Phone tweets an update: ~7 hours since our first alert to authorities, the so-called Libyan Coastguards allege they have launched a search and rescue operation but people on board continue to report their situation is critical. They need to be rescued right now. #DontLetThemDrown

14:11 – The relative of one of the people on the boat calls Alarm Phone after speaking to the people in distress. He confirms that the people are still in distress at sea. He reports that according to the people on board water is entering the boat, that it is a double deck boat and that both engines are broken. He also sends an updated position of the people in distress: N32°58′, E012°12 received at@14:00 CEST – Alarm Phone forwards this position to authorities at 14:31.

14:19 – The colonel of the so-called Libyan coastguard informs Alarm Phone that the so-called Libyan coastguard might have found the boat and is now engaged in a rescue operation. He reports that there are dead people on board and that the boat is sinking.

14:52  – The colonel of the so-called Libyan coastguard informs Alarm Phone that their asset is still on scene and engaged in the ‘rescue’ operation. He confirms that the boat is embarking water and that people are piled on each other. He reports that there are dead bodies inside the boat and that it is difficult to get them because the boat is sinking and about to capsize.

18:12 – The colonel reports to Alarm Phone that the Sabratha vessel of the so-called Libyan coastguard recovered 14 dead bodies. He still does not know how many people were found alive.

22:05 – UNHCR Libya tweets an update about two boats intercepted off Libya: “Bodies of 15 persons recovered as 2 boats arrived at Tripoli Naval Base this evening. 177 survivors were provided aid, some in need of urgent medical help by UNHCR and partner, @RESCUEorg. The passengers had set off from Zwara and Alkhoms the night before (2 boats).”