Italy says 30 migrants missing after boat capsizes making the crossing to the EU

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Thirty missing, 17 rescued as boat capsizes north of Libya

Rome (AFP) – About 30 migrants were missing and presumed drowned after the overcrowded boat they were on capsized during a rescue attempt by a cargo ship off Libya’s coast, Italy’s coastguard said on Sunday.

Seventeen migrants were saved and a search was underway for the missing after the early-morning attempted rescue in a search-and-rescue zone under the jurisdiction of Libya, the coastguard said. 

“During the rescue operations… the boat capsized during the transfer of the migrants: 17 people were rescued and recovered by the (cargo) vessel while approximately 30 migrants were missing,” said the coastguard.

The latest disaster in the Mediterranean comes exactly two weeks after a shipwreck off Italy’s southern coast of Calabria that killed at least 76 people, with bodies continuing to wash ashore nearly daily.

On the 11th of March, Sea-Watch International Tweeted: “The people must be rescued now before more people die trying to reach safety. Italy and the EU countries must assume responsibility for sea rescue and protect the lives of people on the move. Now, immediately, in this case. In general, in every case.”

On the 12th of March, Sea-Watch International tweeted: “Only 17 of the people in this picture were rescued by a merchant vessel, and 30 are missing. The case was known to the authorities for over 24 hours. They just knowingly let them drown.”

That shipwreck has put Italy’s far-right government on the defensive as it tries to fend off sharp criticism that it failed to intervene in time to save the migrants. 

Alarm Phone – another charity, which picks up calls from migrant vessels in distress – said on Twitter that it had first alerted authorities on Saturday, emphasising that the boat, which was carrying 47 people, needed immediate rescue.

The boat was also spotted by a surveillance plane of German NGO SeaWatch, which reported it was “dangerously overcrowded and in frightening waves.” 

In a statement, Italy’s coastguard said Alarm Phone had notified Rome’s rescue coordination centre, as well as Maltese and Libyan authorities about the boat.  

A merchant vessel that had headed towards the boat after the alert by SeaWatch reported difficulty in rescuing the boat due to bad weather, the coastguard said. 

Search and rescue operation 

Authorities in Libya — which the coastguard said was responsible for search and rescue efforts in that zone — reported “a lack of availability of naval assets” and requested the support of Rome, which dispatched three additional nearby merchant ships to the area, according to the statement.

A rescue operation began early Sunday morning after the ship “Froland” reached the site, but the boat capsized during the operation, the coastguard said. 

Two migrants pulled safely onboard needed urgent medical care and the ship headed to Malta to disembark them. 

Merchant ships were still in the area searching for the missing, along with two Frontex planes, it said. 

“The rescue operation took place outside the Italian SAR (search-and-rescue) area of responsibility, recording the inactivity of the other National Maritime Coordination and Rescue Centres involved in the area,” the coastguard said.

SeaWatch tweeted on Saturday that bad weather was making a rescue difficult and that “Tripoli claims it is unable to send a patrol boat.” 

Earlier Sunday, Alarm Phone tweeted that it had lost contact with the boat and implored authorities not to allow the Libyan coastguard “to force the people back to Libya where they had tried to escape from”. 

(AFP)

Pushbacks and failures.

In 2022, it was estimated that 2,062 migrants died while crossings the Mediterranean Sea. However, the accurate number of deaths recorded in the Mediterranean Sea cannot ascertained. Between 2014 and 2018, for instance, about 12 thousand people who drowned were never found.

Italy’s capabilities to rescue refugees and migrants at sea have come under scrutiny following a February 26 shipwreck near the southern region of Calabria, in which at least 79 people died.

Also under scrutiny is the EU border agency Frontex.

A report by the European Union’s anti-fraud watchdog into the EU border agency Frontex has concluded that Frontex employees were involved in covering up the illegal pushbacks of migrants from Greece to Turkey in violation of their “fundamental rights.”

The 120-page OLAF report was made public by the Germany-based freedom of information portal FragDenStaat together with media organizations Der Spiegel and Lighthouse Reports.

Top managers at Frontex committed “serious misconduct and other irregularities” in covering up pushback incidents, not investigating them or handling them correctly, the report found, but names were redacted.

“In doing so, they hindered the capacity of Frontex to fully comply with its responsibilities, namely ensuring for the protection and promotion of fundamental rights,” the report read.

Frontex coordinates search-and-rescue and border interception operations on behalf of the 27 EU countries. Pushbacks, the forcible return of people across an international border without an assessment of their rights to apply for asylum or other protection, violate both international and EU law.

DER SPIEGEL has revealed most of these transgressions in joint research conducted together with Lighthouse Reports. With its report, however, OLAF, an EU authority, is now officially establishing the breaches of law and misconduct, documenting some pretty shocking details along the way.

Pressure on European Commission Grows

The Olaf report also raises questions about the European Commission, which each year transfers millions of euros to Athens. The money is earmarked to help the Greeks manage migration according to EU law – not for abandoning people in life rafts without motors on the open sea.

Numerous media outlets revealed the illegal practice of pushbacks of refugees at Europe’s external borders to the public many months ago, but the Greek government has nonetheless dismissed the reports as “fake news.”

At the same time, the OLAF report shows how Frontex, the European border agency, has been complicit in these egregious human rights violations.

“We are looking at 43,000 toddlers, women and men who were kidnapped by European agents from safety in EU territory. 35,000 abandoned at sea to drowned by Frontex and Greece in 2.5 years, with the full support of the commission and all member states,” said Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen from Front-Lex, who is taking the agency to court in response to the allegations and report.

In a classified EU report on Frontex, the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency details serious allegations of cover-ups of human rights violations in EU member states by the agency and its staff.

Again, We Need A Grown-up Cross-party European Wide Discussion Without The Dog Whistles on what is now referred to as the migrent crisis.

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