NATO and the Italian coast guard were mainly to blame for not aiding a boat filled with migrants fleeing from Libya last year, Europe’s human rights and democracy organization said Thursday.
The Council of Europe said NATO was mainly responsible for the deaths of 63 migrants whose “left-to-die” boat was allowed to drift in the Mediterranean Sea without aid. The organization said that there were human and institutional errors made, while NATO warships and the Italian coast guard did not meet their basic obligations.
In the incident, 72 sub-Saharan African men, women, and children were forced to board a small inflatable rubber boat in order to escape the fighting in Libya to the crowded Italian island of Lampedusa.
“It was completely overcrowded. Everyone was sitting on everybody else. I had someone sitting on top of me, and this person had someone sitting on top of him,” a survivor of the trip, Bilal Yacoub, told the council. The smugglers, he added, didn’t really care how many people can fit into the boat; all they want is to get the money from each person.”
The boat sent out a number of distress signals via a satellite phone, but did not receive any help even though there were NATO ships in the area, the organization said. The 26-page report cited a “reliable source” in saying that there were “at least two military vessels involved with NATO’s” operations in Libya nearby when the distress signals went out. Both ships had the ability to launch helicopters, it added.
NATO, in a statement, said that it got a notice from Italian officials about the small rubber boat and then sent out a message to its vessels in the area.
“In fact, throughout our arms embargo mission last year, NATO ships and aircraft directly assisted in the rescue of over 600 people, and helped coordinate the rescue of many others,” NATO stated. “And throughout, we immediately notified the responsible national coast guards” about refugees.
Survivors of the ordeal said that two helicopters flew over their boat, with one dropping biscuits and water, which were then distributed to the women and children on board, the council report states. However, the water and the food soon ran out and the passengers were stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean.
The passengers also recounted meeting with Italian and Tunisian fishing vessels. The Tunisians said they did not have any fuel for them and according to a survivor, “ran away from us,” the report states. There was no indication that the fishermen called on the coast guard or relevant authorities.