Desperate to escape war and tyranny, 72 people left Libya in the early hours of March 27, 2011, in hopes of reaching safe haven in Europe. As their 10-metre inflatable dinghy set out to sea, warships from several NATO countries including Canada were patrolling the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast as part of an international military operation in support of rebels battling the forces of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
It never made it to its destination. The boat ran out of fuel and drifted on the open water – its passengers desperate for food and water – for two weeks. By the time the dinghy floated back to the Libyan coast, all but nine of the passengers were dead. No one had come to their rescue although the Italian navy sent a distress signal on behalf of the migrants to ships in the area, an allied helicopter dropped biscuits to the dying migrants and the NATO naval command centre in Naples had their co-ordinates.
No one has ever been held responsible for the failure to save the “left to die” boat, as it has come to be known. A Council of Europe report, issued this week, called it “clearly a collective failure at every step of the way and by all key actors.”
Tineke Strik, a Dutch senator who is the Council’s rapporteur on the incident, also expressed frustration that NATO countries have not provided necessary details about the location of their ships and helicopters during the period when the migrants waited for help that never came. “It’s still a bit strange that all governments said: ‘We didn’t receive any message.’”
In the case of Canada, which deployed the frigate HMS Charlottetown and a military helicopter for the NATO mission, the Department of National Defence cited military secrecy in its refusal to release the information she seeks. “I cannot require the [department] to provide me with the details, but Canadian members of Parliament can do that,” Ms. Strik said in an interview after the release of her latest investigative report on the incident. “I would really urge them to undertake such an inquiry.”
Most of the migrants in the “left to die boat” were from Eritrea, one of the harshest regimes in world. They thought their trip from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to the Italian island of Lampedusa would take 18 hours, according to the few survivors. When the boat broke down halfway through the journey, the captain phoned Reverend Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest and refugee advocate in Italy.
Father Zerai, who later heard the survivors’ horrifying stories of how the sun and seawater charred their skins, said he alerted Italy’s coast guard which pinpointed the boat’s location through the captain’s satellite phone. The coast guard sent out a first distress message to all vessels in the area shortly before 8 p.m. on March 27. Less than two hours later, the Rome-based centre also sent a similar message by fax to the NATO Allied Maritime Command.
Ms. Strik’s reports – she published an initial investigation in 2012 – suggest that at least some allied ships and helicopters were aware that the boat was in trouble. Survivors reported that a ship and some sort of military aircraft came nearby, and a helicopter at one point approached the drifting dinghy to photograph the passengers. “Many people on board the boat started singing and clapping for joy, holding the babies above their heads and pleading for rescue and assistance,” she wrote. The helicopter returned five hours later to drop small bottles of water and packets of biscuits.
When the migrants left Tripoli, the Charlottetown was “alongside Augusta Bay” in Sicily, according to a Royal Canadian Navy document dated Nov. 3, 2011, and declassified under an Access to Information request from the Canadian Center for International Justice. It indicates that the ship stayed there until it left for the Libyan coastal city of Misrata on March 31 – four days after the boat set out to sea.
It is not clear from the document or any information provided by Canada to the European investigators the location of Charlottetown and the Sea King helicopter in relation to the dinghy at different points in its fateful journal. But Canadian naval officials told Ms. Strik’s inquiry that the ship never received any alert about the “left to die boat.”
Other NATO countries have either not responded to requests for satellite imagery and communications records, or also say their ships did not receive a distress signal – leaving the story of the “left to die” boat without a satisfactory ending. “In seeking clarification of a number of key questions ... I continued to receive referrals back to NATO by individual member states, and referrals back to the member states by NATO,” Ms. Strik wrote in the latest report. “I hope that one day,” she added, “the details will come to light so that appropriate lessons can be drawn from this tragic failure to act. In the meantime, I stand by my conclusion that one state’s vessel under the command of NATO must take responsibility.”