Investigator: "Everyone left boat people to die"

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at

Why did nobody help 72 severely weakened refugees on a boat in the Mediterranean a year ago? NATO must now answer that question, given that the refugees were spotted at the time by military vessels.

Sixty-three passengers died of hunger and thirst. Dutch politician Tineke Strik was commissioned by the Council of Europe to investigate this refugee drama.

The 72 African men, women and children made the crossing to Europe in a seven meter long rubber dinghy that they boarded in Libya at the end of March 2011. Fleeing the civil war, they set sail for the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Helicopter crew promised aid
After two days, the situation on board became untenable because the occupants had taken nothing to eat or drink with them. They managed to call a priest in Rome whose telephone number they had. Shortly after the cleric raised the alarm, a military helicopter circled above the boat. Water and biscuits were thrown down. Ms Strik:

"The helicopter had seen what their situation was. The people on the boat made it clear with gestures that they needed help. We don't know where that military helicopter came from. We do know that there were two military vessels close to the boat, one at eleven miles and another at forty miles. We therefore assume that the helicopter came from one of them."

The survivors told Ms Strik that they held up their children so that the people in the helicopter understood the urgency of their situation. From the helicopter it was made clear that help would come, but nothing happened. In the end the boat floated around for ten days. Slowly but surely more and more people died. Only nine survived the ordeal.

Libya at war
It seems that the position of the boat was the reason that nobody took any action. There are international rules, but in this case those rules ensured that there was a lack of help, as Ms Strik explains:

"Each country is responsible for a particular zone in which they have to rescue people who get into trouble. This boat was still in the Libyan zone. Because of the civil war there was no way a rescue operation could be conducted from Libya. The rules say that the first country that receives a request has to take over the coordination. In fact, Italy should therefore have ensured that a ship was sent to save them."

NATO in the vicinity
According to Ms Strik, Italy did indeed sent out messages to everyone in the vicinity, but nobody responded. There was a NATO operation going on in the area. It's not clear whether the ships were already sailing under the NATO flag or were still under their own flags.

According to the survivors, a large ship did sail past, and people in uniform with binoculars were looking at the refugees. By that time, many people had already died or were severely weakened. That must have been visible to those aboard any passing ship, thinks Ms Strik.

NATO must provide clarification
"When you see people in need then you must help - period. It doesn't matter whether you're a fisherman or a military or a commercial ship. You must take immediate action."

The Council of Europe will seek clarification from NATO. Human rights organisations have already done the same in a letter to NATO and its member states. They want to know the exact locations of all ships patrolling off the coast of Libya in late March 2011, and under what flag they were operating. As long as that remains unclear, everyone will continue blaming each other. There are calls for international agreements to be tightened up to ensure that the tragedy of last March is never repeated.