On 14 December 2023, from 17:00h CET on, Alarm Phone received several calls from a group in distress who had left from Zuwarah in Libya on a white rubber boat. The situation on board this overcrowded boat was extremely dangerous, not least due to the rough sea.
Once we were able to receive their GPS position, N 33°26’57.60 E 012°05’25.80, Alarm Phone informed authorities in Italy, Malta, Libya and the NGO rescue vessel SEA-EYE 4 via email at 17:30h CET and also tried to reach the so-called Libyan coastguard on its many emergency numbers to request an immediate rescue operation. However, despite many attempts, only at 17:55h CET could one Libyan officer be reached who, initially, suggested that they would send out a patrol boat in search of the distressed. The only available ship of the civil fleet, the SEA-EYE 4, was at least 12 hours away from the scene of distress.
At 18:00h CET, Alarm Phone was called again by the people in distress who made clear that they were fearing for their lives. They said: “We are losing our life here!”. We also received an updated GPS position from the boat. We passed the received information on to all authorities via email but only received a reply from SEA-EYE 4, who stated that they could only reach the position of distress the following morning at 6:00h CET.
Though initially suggesting that they would send a patrol vessel, the Libyan authorities stated at 20:44h CET that they would not send out any rescue asset, due to the high waves. Alarm Phone is aware, however, that at least two assets of the so-called Libyan coastguard were out at sea during the day. They intercepted at least 3 boats and forced the people on the move back to Libya.
Other vessels of the civil fleet, who might have been able to rescue people to safety, had been ordered away from the deadly maritime zone, instructed to disembark rescued people in northern Italy. This Italian policy of forcing rescuers to disembark in faraway harbours, while knowing that people continue to escape from Libya, has knowingly widened the rescue gap at sea and proven, once more, lethal.
Given the lack of available assets, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome ordered at 21:40h CET the platform supply vessel VOS TRITON to the boat in distress. In the past, the VOS TRITON has regularly returned people to Libya against their will. The supply vessel is also not sufficiently equipped to carry out complex rescue operations. During the night, the VOS TRITON reached the boat in distress.
We do not know at this stage what then unfolded. What we do know is that a disaster occurred. Only 25 of the more than 80 people on board could be rescued. 25 survivors were forced back to Libya. The others, approximately 61 people, drowned.
We are devastated that once again the European and Libyan authorities have failed to rescue people in distress, and that once again the EU border regime has killed.We denounce the continuous border violence, the continuous dying at Europe’s maritime and other borders.
Our heartfelt condolences to the relatives and friends of the dead. They may never learn what happened to their loved ones.
Timeline of Alarm Phone case 2371
17:00 Alarm Phone receives several calls from a Thuraya satellite phone but the line cuts. Then the number is not reachable anymore.
17:10 Alarm Phone receives following GPS-position for the boat in distress: N 33°26’57.60 E 012°05’25.80.
17:20 The communication with the people on board is difficult. People are shouting and are in panic. They ask Alarm Phone to immediately call for rescue.
17:30 Alarm Phone sends an email to alert relevant authorities in Italy, Malta and Libya to the boat in distress. Shortly after, Alarm Phone tries to also call the so-called Libyan coastguard. The first emergency number is out of service. The second remains unanswered. The third picks up the phone but then hangs up. The fourth remains unanswered. At fifth picks up, the officer asks Alarm Phone to wait for 5 minutes, then hangs up. The sixth picks up but does not speak English. The seventh picks up and asks for the GPS position of the boat.
17:30 The people in distress tell Alarm Phone that water is entering the boat. They are very worried.
17:45 The people in distress are in panic – communication is difficult.
17:55 In a phone call with the so-called Libyan coastguard, they state that they would search for the boat.
18:00 Alarm Phone receives another call from the people in distress who pass on a new GPS position: N33°25’50.40 E012°04’40.40. They are in panic and shouting: “people are losing their life here!”. We try to calm them down. It is unclear from the GPS positions if the boat is moving or adrift. After we are not able to reconnect with the people in distress again.
18:16 We update all authorities via email.
18:24 We receive an email from SEA-EYE 4, confirming that they would direct themselves to the distress. Estimated time of arrival: 6:00h CET on 15 December.
18:37 Alarm Phone receives another call from the people in distress who are panicking. It is difficult to communicate. Afterwards, Alarm Phone is regularly trying to reach the distressed but is unable to get through to them.
20:26 MRCC Rome issues an Inmarsat for about 60 people in distress, at position 33 24, 12 04 from 19:17 CET.
20:44 Alarm Phone calls the so-called Libyan coastguard – an officer says that they would not go out now but only later, due to the high waves.
21:40 MRCC Rome alerts VOS TRITON to a rubber boat with about 70 people in distress at position 33 24, 12 04 that needs immediate assistance.
22:04 Alarm Phone sends further emails to all authorities, including Frontex:
„Dear officer, we cannot reach the people on board since 18.00 CET 14 Dec and regarding the weather the situation is really concerning.
According to what we understood from our conversation with the Libyan coast guard on this number: 00218910349739 @ 20.44 CET 14 Dec they are not planning to go since the waves are high.
So as far as we know there is no ongoing operation for the moment,
We are urgently asking for help
Thank you for your attention“
Alarm Phone continues to call the distressed during the night but cannot get through again.
00:12 Alarm Phone calls MRCC Rome and stresses that an operation by the so-called Libyan coastguard is very unlikely. The officer states that Italy cannot do anything in Libyan waters.
01:46 Alarm Phone calls the so-called Libyan coastguard. The officer has “no information” about an operation by the so-called Libyan coastguard but suggests that VOS TRITON is in the area of distress. We track the VOS TRITON, which shows search patterns.
02:22 and 02:23 Alarm Phone alerts also the VOS TRITON via email.
11:23 Alarm Phone calls the so-called Libyan coastguard. One officer states that 25-30 “refugees” are on board the VOS TRITON that is now on its way to Tripoli, estimated arrival time: 20:00.
18:17 Alarm Phone calls the so-called Libyan coastguard. One officer says that the VOS TRITON is at the port with 25 people on board.
08:01 Alarm Phone tries to reach VOS TRITON – no response.
09:57 Alarm Phone calls the so-called Libyan coastguard who say that 30 people had been intercepted by VOS TRITON.
14:21 Alarm Phone calls the so-called Libyan coastguard who say that 32 people were rescued by VOS TRITON.
22:15 IOM Libya states that, according to survivors, 86 people had been on board, meaning that 61 people, including children, have drowned.
After we had to learn about the shipwreck, we reached out to Gorden Isler, spokesperson for Sea-Eye e.V., who said: “
The SEA-EYE 4 is currently the only rescue ship in a huge sea area. The crew has received many distress calls in the last few days. There have been no coordinating efforts by state authorities to involve our ship, however. Instead, the so-called Libyan coast guard has intercepted several boats and taken people to Libya in violation of international law. Today we learned that 61 people lost their lives. It is irresponsible for state actors to ignore our presence instead of including our rescue ship in the coordination to save as many lives as possible”