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Reporter’s diary: Bearing witness to the EU’s migration policies at sea as deaths soar

‘Do you realise that if you hadn't arrived we would have died?’

Two boats are seen, one on the left and another on the right. At the back the sun is setting and in the background is another boat. Max Hirzel/TNH
The crew of Humanity 1 rescue a group of 30 asylum seekers and migrants from a dinghy in the central Mediterranean on 3 June.

22 May: Intimidation

The Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat nr 654, approaching and circling Humanity 1, which was patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya.
Max Hirzel/TNH
A Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat, donated by Italy, circles Humanity 1 while it is searching for boats in distress in international waters off the coast of Libya on 22 May.

It’s just after noon, and Humanity 1 is patrolling international waters around 110 nautical miles off the coast of eastern Libya, searching for boats in distress. The search and rescue ship set out from the southeastern Sicilian port of Syracuse on 17 May with its crew of 29 sailors, staff, and volunteers. The crew members are from all over: Germany, Ireland, the UK, Mexico, Spain, Ghana, Kenya, Italy, Romania, and Syria. 

After several rough days, today the sea has calmed down. It’s sunny, and a light wind is blowing. Suddenly, a Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat appears on the horizon, about three nautical miles away. It starts heading straight for Humanity 1. 

Humanity 1’s captain, Josh, whose full name is being withheld on the NGOs request – along with those of the other crew members – radios the Libyan boat: “Here Humanity 1, I ask you to communicate your intentions.” 

Silence.

Josh repeats the transmission in Arabic. Still, no reply. 

The Libyan boat approaches within 700 metres, travelling fast. Humanity 1’s crew remains calm. They’ve faced intimidation from the Libyan Coast Guard before. The Libyan boat turns, circles Humanity 1, and then departs to the south. The number on the bow identifies it as patrol boat 654, which was supplied to Libya by Italy in 2009. Italy repaired the boat in 2017 – along with three others it provided – and returned them to the Libyan Coast Guard. 

23 May: First alert

Around four in the afternoon, Alarm Phone, a volunteer network that runs a telephone hotline to support rescue operations in the Mediterranean, sends out an alert about a boat carrying around 500 people – including 45 women, some of them pregnant, and 55 children. “Blue, rusty iron boat with two decks. No life vests, water in the boat, danger of capsizing,” the alert says.  

The boat is in the Maltese search and rescue (SAR) zone, where the island EU nation is supposed to be responsible for coordinating and carrying out rescue efforts. It is more than 350 nautical miles to the east of Humanity 1’s current location. Sailing into a headwind, it will take an estimated 54 hours to reach it.

Humanity 1 calls the Maltese Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC), which is responsible for directing rescues in this part of the Mediterranean, but receives no answer – something that has become commonplace in recent years. The captain then calls the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome, which replies that they are unaware of the distress case, even though Alarm Phone has sent them the alert. 

A little over two hours later, Humanity 1 receives an update from Alarm Phone: “The boat is not able to move anymore, lower deck filling up with water, people had to go to the upper deck, one pregnant woman has given birth and needs urgent medical treatment. The boat in distress is in sight of a big vessel.”

Around 8pm, after trying to gather more information about the case, Humanity 1 informs the MRCCs in Malta and Rome that it’s heading to assist the ship. Around three hours later, the MRCC in Rome sends Humanity 1 an email saying its assistance is not required. Humanity 1 continues its course: In the absence of a guarantee that another ship will assist, the captain decides it’s still necessary to try, even if it might be too late by the time they arrive. 

Alarm Phone sends two more updates. “The people are very exhausted and have had nothing to drink since the day before,” one says. Then, a couple of hours later: “A big cargo ship almost hit them and just turned away at the last minute. The boat has no light, they try to make light with their phones.”

24 May: Collusion

Shortly after midnight, while still on course towards the boat carrying 500 people, Humanity 1 receives an alert from Alarm Phone about a second boat in distress. This one is in the Libyan SAR zone, which was established with EU support in 2018. The boat is carrying 27 people, including two families. Alarm Phone tells Humanity 1 that it is moving “very slow because of wind and waves and the engine is hardly working anymore”. 

The boat is around 200 nautical miles from Humanity 1. As required, Humanity 1’s captain sends an email to JRCC, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Tripoli, which was also established in 2018 with the help of the EU. There’s no response. Humanity 1 calls a merchant ship – named the Long Beach – that is heading to Libya and close to the boat in distress to inform them of the situation and ask if they are rendering assistance. The Long Beach responds that it has not received instructions but will call back. 

Meanwhile, around 2pm, a reconnaissance aeroplane operated by another search and rescue NGO, Sea-Watch, arrives at the last known location of the boat carrying 500 people but finds no trace of it. How can a boat carrying 500 people simply disappear?

Later, family members of the people on board tell Alarm Phone the boat was intercepted and the passengers were forcibly returned to the Libyan city of Benghazi and detained. The Associated Press reported that the interception was likely carried out by the Tareq bin Zayed, a boat belonging to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. 

Libya has rival governments, and the Libyan National Army controls much of the country’s east. Haftar has been courted in recent months by EU leaders seeking help to curb migration. Since May this year, the Tareq bin Zayed has been documented pulling multiple boats back to Libya, where refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants face a well-documented cycle of detention and abuse

Alarm Phone’s review of the event found that Malta’s RCC did not activate an effort to rescue the boat carrying 500 people, despite there being multiple commercial ships in the area. Instead, Alarm Phone alleges that the Maltese RCC coordinated the effort to have the boat pulled back to Libya by the Tareq bin Zayed. 

Maltese and Italian authorities did not inform Humanity 1 that the boat had been found and returned to Libya. So the rescue ship continued on its course to a boat that was no longer there. 

25 May: ‘You are breaking the law’

Around 1am, Humanity 1 calls the Long Beach to see if there are any updates on the boat carrying 27 people. The Long Beach replies that they have rescued the passengers and are heading for Libya. 

“By bringing them to Libya, you are breaking the law of the sea and acting against human rights. Libya is not a place of safety,” Humanity 1 informs the Long Beach. 

The officer on the radio says he will inform the merchant ship’s captain. After that, the Long Beach stops responding to calls. 

Humanity 1 has called off its search for the boat carrying 500 people after it has become clear it is no longer there. That evening, another alert comes in from Alarm Phone about a boat in distress in international waters that are part of Malta’s SAR zone. 

26 May 2023: Rescue

Two boats are seen in the picture. On the right one with asylum seekers, on the left a rescue boat. We see people form the left reaching out to the asylum seekers.
Max Hirzel/TNH
Asylum seekers and migrants board one of Humanity 1’s rigid hull inflatable rescue boats during an operation on 26 July.

It’s raining as the small blue fishing boat pitches dangerously in the early morning waves. There are 88 people crammed on board without life jackets. All of them are men. Most are from Syria and Pakistan, a few are from Egypt, and one is from Sudan. Seven are minors, including three who are under the age of 13. 

It takes more than 10 hours for Humanity 1 to locate the blue fishing boat. When it does, adrenaline kicks in, and the crew rapidly dispatches one of their two rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs), which sets off at a sprint to perform the rescue.  

As the RHIB approaches the fishing boat, Humanity 1’s cultural mediator, Fares, calls out in Arabic: "We are coming to save you; we will take you to Europe, not to Libya!"

The tense and weary faces of the men on the fishing boat register relief and joy. Someone on board calls out: “I love you!”

After the rescue is complete, the empty fishing boat pitches and rolls in the waves. The deck is littered with clothes, bags, backpacks, empty water cans, and other bottles filled with urine. Some soaked mattresses are spread out in the bow. The boat smells of sweat, urine, and diesel. 

Later, the people who have been rescued tell the crew of Humanity 1 they had set out from the city of Tobruk in eastern Libya, which is under the control of Haftar. The fishing boat’s bilge pump broke down, and the passengers ended up drifting at sea for more than two days, bailing out water that sloshed over the side of the vessel. 

“Do you realise that if you hadn't arrived we would have died? It is certain – we would have shortly been capsized,” one of the survivors says. 

It takes the crew of Humanity 1 around two hours to complete the rescue. After they finish, the crew informs the MRCC in Rome. The Italian MRCC tells Humanity 1 to head to the port of Livorno in northwest Italy to disembark the rescued people – around 1,400 kilometres, or a four-day voyage, away. 

Search and rescue NGOs, including SOS Humanity, say that Italian authorities intentionally assign them ports in northern Italy to disembark rescued people as a way to hamper their activities and limit the number of private rescue vessels at sea.

On board Humanity 1, three of the people rescued from the blue fishing boat approach the crew. “There was another boat that left with us. After about a day, we lost sight of it,” one of them said. An older man added: “The sea was bad, you have to look for them. Don't worry about us, please go look for them.”

Humanity 1 – which has the capacity to hold 175 people, or more if needed – contacted the Italian MRCC twice to ask for permission to search for the missing boat. But a law passed in February by Italy’s right-wing government – which entered office vowing to crack down on migration – requires NGOs to disembark people immediately after they have been rescued, effectively preventing NGOs from conducting multiple rescues.

The Italian MRCC denies Humanity 1’s requests. 

Epilogue

A group of Pakistani asylum seekers discussing Humanity 1’s route to Livorno, drawn on a whiteboard on the boat, on 28 May. (Max Hirzel/TNH)

Asylum seekers dance onboard Humanity 1 on 27 May as the ship heads toward the Italian port of Livorno. (Max Hirzel/TNH)

Humanity 1 arrived in Livorno on 30 May and disembarked its passengers before rapidly departing to search for more boats in distress. On 3 June, the crew rescued another 30 people between Sicily and Malta who were disembarked in the port of Civitavecchia, northwest of Rome, three days later. Humanity 1 returned to Syracuse, the port in Sicily, on 8 June to end its mission. 

The next day, on 9 June, a fishing boat set out from Tobruk overladen with passengers – this one carrying around 750 people attempting to reach Italy. By 13 June, the engine had broken down, and the boat was drifting. European officials were alerted to the case, but no one came to the rescue. Instead, the officials monitored the situation using planes, helicopters, boats, and radar for over 13 hours until the boat capsized, killing more than 600 people. Multiple survivors allege that the Greek coast guard had attached a rope to try to tow the vessel, causing the tragedy. 

In the central Mediterranean, there is no collaboration between European states and civil society to save lives. Instead, there is a clash between two opposing objectives – two ways of dealing with migration caused by conflicts, repression, inequalities, and a climate in crisis: On the one hand, people are trying to save lives; on the other, European states are attempting (without much success, and despite spending of hundreds of millions of euros) to let as few people as possible reach Europe, even at the cost of their lives and of upholding human rights. 

In the middle, there is the sea and those human beings, with faces hollowed out by fear, who board boats knowing they – like so many before them – may drown. 

Edited by Eric Reidy and Tom Brady.

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