Note: The audio featured in the above video and below photo contains harrowing content that some readers might find disturbing.
Hundreds of Syrian refugees crammed into a sinking boat headed toward Europe repeatedly begged the Italian coast guard to save them, leaked audio shows. But authorities appeared to deflect their requests, potentially breaching international law.
A total of 268 people died because no one came to rescue them until five hours after they made their first cry for help.
L’Espresso obtained and published Monday the audio of the exchange that took place on Oct. 11, 2013, featured in the above video.
Syrian Dr. Mohanad Jammo, one of the boat’s passengers, can be heard pleading for help in several calls to the Italian coast guard. The boat was only 60 nautical miles south of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a point of arrival for many migrants and refugees.
“Please help, water is coming into [the boat],” he said to the coast guard operator in the first call, placed tat 12:39pm local time. “Please hurry, please hurry, please hurry. The boat is going down.”
Jammo called again at 1:17pm, but the operator told him to contact Malta’s authorities instead.
“You are near Malta,” the operator said. That wasn’t the case; the ship was located 118 miles southwest of Malta.
At 1:48pm, Janno tried again and was told the same thing.
“We are dying, please!” he responded.
The Maltese and the Italian authorities held a phone conversation at 4:44pm. An Italian Navy vessel, the Nave Libra, was located only a few miles from the capsizing boat. Italy’s coast guard seemed reluctant to send it to rescue the refugees because it would mean taking the country’s only naval asset in the area out of commission, according to the audio.
But after a Maltese air fleet spotted the boat beginning to capsize at 5:07pm, the Italian authorities finally sent the Nave Libra toward the boat in distress, five hours after the first call. A total of 480 people were on board ― and more than half drowned.
Search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean are undoubtedly busy, but international law stipulates that whichever country’s authorities are closest to those in distress are responsible for the rescue.
These missions were nowhere near as sophisticated and prevalent as they are now, so it isn’t a surprise that only one Italian naval vessel happened to be nearby. Yet Italy has been dealing with migrant arrivals to its southern islands for decades.
The international community has stepped up its search and rescue efforts big time since 2013, in response to the hundreds of thousands of people who have opted to use the Mediterranean as a gateway to Europe in the last few years. Most European Union countries as well as several non-profits now operate regular missions in the Mediterranean.
Refugees and migrants continue to risk their lives aboard flimsy rafts in an attempt to start anew in Europe, in spite of the apparent risks. As of Sunday, 49,310 migrants and refugees had entered Europe this year, according to the International Organization for Migration ― and 1,309 have died during the crossing. More than 6,000 people were rescued over the weekend alone.
The number of deaths is almost identical to this time last year, even though the total number of arrivals was 187,569.