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NGOs Accuse Italian Coast Guard of Delayed Response in Fatal Capsizing

Drifting migrant boat
Image courtesy Sea-Watch

Published Mar 15, 2023 8:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Italian Coast Guard has come in for criticism for an allegedly slow response to a migrant distress situation, resulting in loss of life. According to three rescue NGOs - Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-Watch - a 30-hour delay in response to a reported migrant distress case resulted in 30 fatalities, while merchant vessels and SAR authorities stood by. In their accounting, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC) was informed of the casualty but opted to wait for the Libyan Coast Guard, which never sent a response boat. 

At about 0130 hours on Saturday, Alarm Phone - an NGO tasked with coordinating comms with maritime migrants - received a request for assistance from a migrant boat some 200 nm to the northeast of Misrata, Libya. Surface conditions on scene were poor, with strong winds and high waves. At 0230 hours, Alarm Phone emailed the Italian, Maltese and Libyan SAR coordination centers to inform them of the evolving distress situation. A nearby tanker was contacted through its owners and insurers, but it maintained course and continued its commercial voyage. A second potential good samaritan vessel also passed by without diverting.

At 1030 hours, Sea-Watch's search plane reached the scene and found a drifting wooden boat with 47 occupants, and the pilots sent out a radio mayday call. The tanker Basilis L responded and diverted to assist. However, according to Alarm Phone, the Basilis L received instruction from the Libyan Coast Guard to stand by and await a Libyan rescue boat - which was not available, and never came. 

The last phone contact with the boat's occupants was at 0720 hours on Sunday, and Alarm Phone learned that the boat capsized that morning. The cause and circumstances of the capsizing were not reported in the account. 17 people were rescued by the merchant vessel Froland, and 30 others remain missing. 

"Clearly, the Italian authorities were trying to avoid that people would be brought to Italy, delaying intervention so that the so-called Libyan coastguards would arrive and forcibly return people to Libya," Alarm Phone alleged.

The Italian Coast Guard was actively engaged in multiple migrant rescues on the day before the casualty, helping more than 1,300 migrants in three separate incidents off southern Italy on March 10. The agency is under scrutiny already for its response to a migrant vessel casualty near Crotone on February 26, which ended in a shipwreck with 76 fatalities; Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into the timeline of the event. 

Migration reduction is a key priority for the administration of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Under her direction, Italy has clamped down on migrant rescue vessel operations, restricting ships to a single rescue at a time and mandating extended voyages to faraway ports of refuge in the Aegean.