The loss of 268 lives off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013 is one of the worst tragedies in the refugee crisis
The drowning of Syrian refugees off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 proved to be a major tragedy in the humanitarian crisis. But now leaked audiotapes published in the Italian press suggest authorities ignored cries for help for several hours while the ship was sinking.
The 2013 shipwreck has proven to be a catalytic event in the flight of refugees from the Middle East, leading to the creation of a European Union task force charged with patrolling the Mediterranean to respond to SOS calls in a timely manner.
The ship departed from Libya on the evening of October 10th, with at least 480 people on board. By 5pm the following day, the boat had capsized, 61 nautical miles from Lampedusa. Most of the passengers, mostly displaced Syrians, drowned before Maltese and Italian ships could reach them.
Earlier this week, the Italian magazine L’Espresso published an article with taped audio claiming that Italian authorities knew the refugee ship was taking on water, but outright refused to respond to the SOS call.
“We are dying, please! Don’t abandon us! We have no captain, he ran away. I have no credit on my phone, please help,” a Syrian doctor named Mohammed Jammo is heard telling the Italian coastguard.
“Yes, yes. You have to call Malta. You have to call Malta,” the Rome-based authorities replied, at 12.39pm.
It would take a further four hours from Italian and Maltese ships to reach the drowning passengers, despite an Italian navy ship being only 90 minutes away at the time the first cry for help was issued.
Calling back again, Jammo pleaded: “Please hurry, please hurry. The boat is going down. I swear to you, there is half a metre in the boat.”
Another call, placed at 1.17pm, saw the Italian coastguard advising the ship to call Malta, “because you are near Malta.”
“Please go, go. Call Malta directly, very quickly, they are there, very close, okay? Please go, go,” the Italian official said, hanging up.
The migrant ship was almost 20 nautical miles from the Libyan coast as it sank, 61 nautical miles south of Lampedusa. The Maltese coast was 118 nautical miles away.
At 4.44pm, more than three hours after the first cry for help was issued, the Italian authorities contacted their Maltese counterparts to ask why they had received a fax from the Maltese Air Force asking to carry out a sea rescue.
“I do not think this is the best way to operate,” the Italian official said, “because after we don’t [sic] have assets in the area to spot new targets.”
Less than 20 minutes later, Malta contacts the Rome operations centre to inform them that a Maltese plane has seen that the ship has capsized and that approximately 250 people are in the water.
“Okay. Is it the same boat?” Rome responded, “I have passed instructions to our Mare Libra [Italian warship].”
Fabrizio Gatti, the journalist who published the leaked audio, says it was released by “sources in Malta,” whose identities are anonymous. The tapes were checked against other recordings held by Italian judicial authorities, evidence in an ongoing investigation into the tragedy.
The tapes add fuel to the fire lit by Amnesty International almost a year after the sinking, with the human rights body saying at the time it was “reasonable to question” whether the two EU countries had responded promptly and done everything they could to avert the loss of so many lives.