Notes From the Margins…

Death in the Mediterranean

  • March 29, 2012
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The Guardian reports today on the Council of Europe’s nine-month investigation into the terrible incident which took place in May last year, when 72 African migrants sail left Tripoli harbour in a packed dinghy en route for Europe.   The boat’s engine cut out and it spent two weeks adrift, even though its passengers made numerous emergency calls by mobile phone and a distress signal was sent out by the  Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome  .

By the time it was rescued, all but nine passengers had died of starvation, exposure or drowning.  The survivors told their rescuers how they had been observed by a military vessel and a helicopter, whose pilot flew over them and motioned for them to remain in place.

Now the investigation has found a ‘catalogue of failures by Nato  warships and European coastguards’ that led to this tragedy.  The report notes that ‘Many    opportunities for saving the lives of the persons on board the boat were lost,’ and that the deaths ‘could have been rescued if all those involved had complied with their obligations.’

The report also criticizes Nato for not cooperating fully with its investigation and suggests that similar incidents may have occurred during the maritime exodus of migrants and refugees last year that resulted in 1,500 deaths.

Few things sum up the gross hypocrisy of Nato’s ‘humanitarian’ bombing campaign last year than its response to the African migrants displaced by the conflict.  A number of organizations and NGOs working with migrants, including Save the Children,  called for Nato to provide ‘humanitarian corridors’ to ensure safe passage for migrants fleeing the conflict across the Mediterranean, but no such efforts were made.

Various organizations and individuals, including UNHCR and the  the EU’s Home Office commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, criticized the absence of a coordinated and consistent search and rescue effort in an area of the Mediterranean that was heavily patrolled by Nato.

In August Malmstrom called on European governments to take in more refugees in order to ‘ demonstrate an increased and much needed commitment to solidarity and the sharing of responsibility‘ that would ‘ help to reduce the number of people putting their lives at risk to reach European shores.’

Solidarity was not a high priority for European governments in this period.  Though Nato’s intervention in Libya was supposedly motivated by an altruistic desire  to save lives, the attitude of many governments towards Libya’s migrants was summed up by the Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini’s warning that the continent faced a ‘Biblical exodus’ of refugees from North Africa.

In May William Hague called on European governments to be ‘tough’ towards migrants fleeing the upheavals in Libya and other Arab and North African countries, on the grounds that:

‘We need proper controls. We can’t just accept a flow of hundreds of thousands or millions of people into southern Europe and then coming beyond that.’

Noble sentiments indeed.  As Tineke Strik, the author of the ‘left-to-die’ investigation, points out

‘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.’

Indeed it does.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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