European and Libyan authorities accused after 130 migrants drown

‘Events show death at sea not an accident,’ says group that takes calls from vessels in distress

As many as 130 people are thought to have drowned off the coast of Libya this week, after hours when European and Libyan authorities ignored calls for help, a refugee charity has said.

Volunteers from Alarm Phone, an organisation which takes calls from refugee boats in distress, said they were in direct contact with the group on the boat which capsized.

"These events show that death at sea is not an accident but the outcome of actions and inactions taken by European and Libyan actors," said Alarm Phone.

The organisation said its volunteers were in touch with people on the boat for 10 hours, on April 21st, and relayed its GPS position to both European and Libyan authorities. No action was taken, it said, except for a plane commanded by the EU border agency Frontex which went out to find the boat about seven hours in, but couldn’t assist.

The following day, April 22nd, the crew of the Ocean Viking, a rescue ship run by the organisation SOS Méditerranée, found the remains of a boat and some bodies in the water.

"Today, after hours of search[ing], our worst fear has come true," said Luisa Albert, the ship's search and rescue co-ordinator. "The crew of the Ocean Viking had to witness the devastating aftermath of the shipwreck of a rubber boat northeast of Tripoli. We are heartbroken. We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones.''

A spokesman for Frontex said it was “deeply saddened” by the incident and that, after trying to alert nearby ships to the capsized boat, the plane it commanded had to return to its base due to worsening weather and a shortage of fuel.

Dunja Mijatovic, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, called it "another terrible tragedy".

“European states must stop abdicating responsibility for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. They should deploy rescue assets, respond to distress calls, expand safe and legal routes, and stop facilitating returns to Libya,” she said.

EU commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson tweeted: “I am deeply saddened by the tragic event off the Libyan coast last night. Last year, more than 2200 people died in the Mediterranean. Every death a tragedy. Saving lives is an international obligation. But we also have to stop criminal smugglers profiting on people’s hope.”

Risking everything

African refugees and migrants fleeing wars, dictatorships and extreme poverty continue to risk everything to reach Europe, even as European migration policy hardens.

Since 2017, the EU has been supporting the Libyan coast guard to intercept refugee boats and return those on them to indefinite detention in North Africa. More than 50,000 men, women and children have been intercepted like this. In 2021 alone, more than 6,000 people have been caught and returned, including 416 women and 274 children, according to the UN's International Organisation for Migration.

Consequently, refugees are trapped in a cycle between exploitative smugglers, who torture and hold them for ransom, and Libyan government-associated detention centres, where physical and sexual abuse is rife, food deprivation common and disease spreads quickly. Their only hope of having asylum claims heard is to make it physically to a country deemed safe.

This week, an Eritrean refugee who made it to Italy, after years in Libya, told The Irish Times he was finally ready to begin life again.

“Am in Europe, thanks to God,” he said.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa