Europe's dark day: NATO blamed for refugee deaths

Jack Shenker -Mar 30, 2012

LONDON: A catalogue of failures by NATO warships and European coastguards led to the deaths of dozens of refugees left adrift at sea, according to an official report into the fate of a boat in the Mediterranean whose distress calls went unanswered for days.

A nine-month investigation by the Council of Europe - the 47-nation human rights watchdog, which oversees the European court of human rights - has unearthed human and institutional failings that condemned the boat's occupants to their fate.

Errors by military and commercial vessels sailing nearby, plus ambiguity in the coastguard's distress calls and confusion about which authorities were responsible for mounting a rescue, were compounded by a long-term lack of planning by the UN, NATO and European nations over the inevitable increase in refugees fleeing North Africa during the international intervention in Libya.

The tale of the ''left-to-die'' refugee boat was first exposed in May, thanks to testimony from the voyage's few survivors. Having set sail from Tripoli in the dead of night, the dinghy - which was packed with 72 African refugees trying to reach Europe - ran into trouble and was left floating with the currents for two weeks before being washed back up on to Libyan shores. Despite emergency calls being issued and the boat being found and identified by European coastguard officials, no rescue was attempted. All but nine of those on board, including two babies, died from thirst and starvation or in storms.

The report's author, Tineke Strik described the tragedy as ''a dark day for Europe'' and said it exposed the continent's double standards in valuing human life.

''We can talk as much as we want about human rights and the importance of complying with international obligations, but if at the same time we just leave people to die, perhaps because we don't know their identity or because they come from Africa, it exposes how meaningless those words are,'' said Mrs Strik, a Dutch member of the council's committee on migration, refugees and displaced persons, and the special rapporteur charged with investigating the case.

The incident has become well-known due to the harrowing accounts of the survivors, but the report makes clear that many similar ''silent tragedies'' have occurred in recent years. Last year, a record number of refugee deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean. ''When you think about the media attention focused on the [Costa] Concordia and then compare it to the more than 1500 migrant lives lost in the Mediterranean in 2011, the difference is striking,'' Mrs Strik said.

Despite NATO's initial claim that none of its ships received a distress signal regarding the refugee boat, the report reveals that distress calls were sent out by the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Rome and should have been passed on to at least one ship under NATO command - the Spanish frigate Mendez Nunez, which was in the immediate area of the refugee boat and equipped with helicopters. A rescue would have been ''a piece of cake'', one NATO official said.

The report concludes that the deaths of 61 refugees on board the boat, plus two more who died soon after reaching land, ''could have been avoided'', and censures NATO and its member states for not co-operating fully with the council's investigation.

NATO said in a statement: ''Clearly, this was a very tragic incident. However … there is no record of any aircraft or ship under NATO command having seen or made contact with the migrant boat in question, though a number of other search-and-rescue missions were executed by those ships and aircraft.''

Guardian News & Media

Most Viewed