Moral Low Ground


European Military Units Left African Refugees to Die at Sea

An investigation by the Guardian has revealed that dozens of African migrants trying to reach Italy on a rickety boat were left to die in the Mediterranean Sea after numerous European military units ignored their desperate pleas for help. The Europeans included what is believed to be a French aircraft carrier that was so close to the drifting boat that there was no doubt whatsoever that its crew could see them. All told, 63 Africans, including two small children, perished as a result of the Europeans’ failure to rescue them.

(Map: The Guardian)

The boat left Tripoli, Libya with 72 aboard on March 25. The Guardian investigation counted migrants from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ghana and Sudan, all refugees fleeing political unrest and/or ethnic and religious persecution in their home countries. Their intended destination was the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies only 180 miles from the Libyan coast. But the small boat soon ran into trouble and started losing fuel.

The passengers used the boat’s satellite phone to call Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who runs the refugee advocacy group Habeshia. Father Zerai in turn notified the Italian coast guard. The boat was located 60 miles off the coast of Tripoli and Italian officials assured Zerai that the alarm had been raised and that “relevant authorities” were aware of the situation.

Soon thereafter, a helicopter marked “ARMY” hovered over the boat and men in military uniforms dropped bottled water and biscuits to the refugees. They were informed to hold their position and wait for a rescue boat, but no such vessel ever arrived.

According to the Guardian, no country has claimed responsibility for sending that helicopter. “We advised Malta that the vessel was heading towards their search and rescue zone, and we issued an alert telling vessels to look out for the boat, obliging them to attempt a rescue,” an Italian coast guard spokesman told the British paper. Maltese officials deny having anything to do with this incident.

After a while, it became apparent to the Africans that help was not on the way. They soon ran out of food and supplies. “We’d finished the oil, we’d finished the food and water, we’d finished everything,” 24-year-old Ethiopian survivor Abu Kurke, who was fleeing ethnic conflict in his homeland, told the Guardian. “We were drifting in the sea, and the weather was very dangerous.”

Then, on March 29th or 30th, their little boat drifted so close to an aircraft carrier that “it would have been impossible to be missed.” Two jets from the carrier flew low over the boat while its passengers held up starving babies for them to see. Still, there was no rescue. The boat soon floated away from the carrier. The Guardian believes the vessel was the Charles de Gaulle. French naval authorities at first denied the carrier was in the area, when showed evidence to the contrary they refused to comment.

Soon the migrants began dying one by one. “We saved one bottle of water from the helicopter for the two babies, and kept feeding them even after their parents had passed,” Kurke told the Guardian. “But after two days, the babies passed too, because they were so small.” “Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies,” he recalled, “which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard. By the final days, we didn’t know ourselves… everyone was either praying, or dying” He says he survived by drinking his own urine and eating toothpaste.

On April 10, the boat washed ashore near war-torn Misrata, Libya. Only 11 of the 72 migrants were still alive at this point; one of those died very shortly after landfall and another died in a Libyan prison. Shockingly, Libyan forces loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi kept the rest imprisoned for four days. Still, prison must have felt like the Ritz-Carlton after the harrowing ordeal the refugees endured at sea.

A NATO spokesman claimed to have no record of the incident. “NATO units are fully aware of their responsibilities with regard to the international maritime law regarding safety of life at sea,” he told the Guardian. “NATO ships will answer all distress calls at sea and always provide help when necessary. Saving lives is a priority for any NATO ships.”

Refugee rights groups have demanded an investigation. UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, has called for “stricter cooperation.” “The Mediterranean cannot become the wild west,” UNHCR spokeswoman Laura Boldrini declared. “Those who do not rescue people at sea cannot remain unpunished.”

“There was an abdication of responsibility which led to the deaths of over 60 people, including children,” Father Zerai told the Guardian. “That constitutes a crime, and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner.”

Perilous voyage.

As for the survivors of this horrific tragedy, who are hiding out in the home of an Ethiopian in Tripoli, they say they’d attempt to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean again just for the chance for a better life in Europe. They certainly know the risks. Just last month more than 800 migrants died trying to cross from Libya to Europe. A ship with 600 refugees on board sank off Tripoli over the weekend. Another 400 migrants were rescued by Italian authorities off Lampedusa in yet another incident on Sunday.

Still, they keep trying.

“These are people living an unimaginable existence, fleeing political, religious and ethnic persecution,” Father Zerai told the Guardian. “We must have justice for them, for those that died alongside them, and for the families who have lost their loved ones.”

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