A picture from file showing migrants off the Libyan coast in 2018 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/O.Calvo
A picture from file showing migrants off the Libyan coast in 2018 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/O.Calvo

Up to 60 migrants are feared dead after a shipwreck on Thursday, March 18. The organization Alarm Phone has tried to reconstruct what happened and has spoken with survivors. Its report was released on Monday.

More than 100 people are thought to have been on board a wooden boat which got into difficulty last Thursday, March 18 in the Mediterranean. The boat was about nine sea miles off the Libyan coast, near the town of Zuwara, reported the German Catholic news agency KNA.

Trouble with the on board motor is thought to have caused a fire on the boat. Last week, the Libyan coastguard reported rescuing 45 migrants from the boat and confirmed that five people were already dead when they reached the scene.

The UN Migration spokesperson in Geneva Safa Msehli tweeted on Tuesday about lives lost in the Mediterranean, although it was unclear whether she was referring to this latest accident.

Now, the organization Alarm Phone has produced a report with a detailed reconstruction based on survivor and witness accounts as well as their own log book to try to reconstruct what happened. The report was published on Monday, March 22.

'Making their voices heard'

According to Alarm Phone, which monitors the Mediterranean for migrant boats and campaigns for their safe rescue, last week "up to 60 people died off Libya." The organization accused "authorities and international media" of remaining silent about the accident, until "relatives and friends of the missing make their voices heard."

According to Alarm Phone, at about 2:30 a.m., passengers on board a "gray wooden boat" called Alarm Phone in a "panic" saying their "engine was on fire." Alarm Phone said they alerted the "relevant authorities as well as the Ocean Viking and requested an immediate search for the boat in distress."

It took a while, stated Alarm Phone, for the people on board the boat to obtain an accurate satellite reading for where they were, and they didn’t manage to send one until 8 a.m. When a signal was finally passed on to Alarm Phone, it showed the boat "just a few nautical miles from the coast, in the area between international waters and Libyan national waters."

In the early hours of Thursday, the position of that boat was transmitted to the Ocean Viking but did not find the people as the position was initially wrong, Meanwhile, the Ocean Viking was asked by the Libyan coastguard to assist in rescuing 10 people on board a fiberglass boat.

From the Ocean Viking log book

The Ocean Viking’s log book, according to Alarm Phone, says that they were told by a Libyan coastguard patrol vessel that they would be heading towards the new reported position of the wooden boat in distress and so the Ocean Viking followed to provide assistance.

Alarm Phone says that Frontex air surveillance aircraft Osprey1 was also searching for the boat. At 09:12, the Ocean Viking logbook states that the Libyan coastguard and Sea-Watch’s Seabird airplane both reported the boat could not be found. At that point, Ocean Viking says it was "instructed to stop moving towards Libyan national waters and to head north," by another Libyan coastguard patrol vessel (658).

A screenshot of the Alarm Phone report showing the route taken by Frontex' plane Osprey 1 whilst searching for the migrant boat which caught fire. Tracking registered at 08.50am March 18 | Source: Alarm Phone
A screenshot of the Alarm Phone report showing the route taken by Frontex' plane Osprey 1 whilst searching for the migrant boat which caught fire. Tracking registered at 08.50am March 18 | Source: Alarm Phone

Alarm Phone said it briefly re-established contact with some of those on board the wooden boat and that people "were in distress." They said there was a "lot of shouting and screaming in the background and the call got interrupted."

'Rescued 45, retrieved five dead bodies'

A few hours later on Thursday, at around midday, the Libyan authorities reported that they had found a boat, rescued 45 people and "retrieved five bodies." Although Alarm Phone says that the Libyan authorities "mention no further deaths," survivors have told Alarm Phone that there were "more victims than survivors." They say that 60 people are still missing and "presumed dead."

Alarm Phone says it wants to "break the silence" of non-reporting of these missing persons and deaths, which is why it gathered together several witness testimonies. The NGO adds that several relatives told them they had tried to contact the Italian authorities for more information but had not received any answers, and they are hoping that by speaking up they will be able to discover the "whole truth about what happened [and] what authorities did to search for the missing."

Alarm Phone says it is joining these relatives calls, and asking authorities to provide a "detailed report of the actions they have undertaken to search for and rescue the people in distress."

According to one witness who was due to get on board but did not eventually sail as the boat was too full, there were more than 130 people on the boat. Most of them were young and "from Sudan and Senegal." This person says there were also "four people from Syria, two from Pakistan and seven Moroccans, and with us about four Egyptians." Women and children were also on board.

Double decker boat, about 12 meters long

The survivor says that the boat "consisted of two floors" and was about 12 meters long. They were told by the smuggler not to light a cigarette on board. This witness says he was worried about the height of the waves and so boarded the boat slowly to avoid being trapped on the lower floor, by the time it was his turn to get on board, he says they were told it was too full and they were sent back to a "waiting location" to await the next departure.

From File: This is another boat with about 200 migrants on board, to give a sense of the numbers which may have been on board the boat which caught fire. This one was rescued by a fishing boat and towed to the port of Pozzallo in Sicily | Photo: Francesco Ruta / ANSA
From File: This is another boat with about 200 migrants on board, to give a sense of the numbers which may have been on board the boat which caught fire. This one was rescued by a fishing boat and towed to the port of Pozzallo in Sicily | Photo: Francesco Ruta / ANSA

The witness says they heard the news at about "10 a.m. the next morning [that] many people lost their lives and the rest of the survivors were returned to a port by a fisherman." He says he heard that the fire was started when the boat’s captain used a lighter to see the engine and the fuel caught fire.

Witness testimony

A second witness confirms that the boat had two decks. He also confirms that the captain used a lighter to see the levels of fuel and that is what started the fire. A third witness says he or she was in "direct contact with Alarm Phone from the boat." This person estimates that there were "more than 100 people on the boat" and that they lost "at least 50 people."

About 80% of all migrant deaths are reportedly due to drowning during sea crossings | E. Morenatti/AP Photo/picture-alliance
About 80% of all migrant deaths are reportedly due to drowning during sea crossings | E. Morenatti/AP Photo/picture-alliance

The third witness says as the fire took hold, "many people jumped into the water." He says he did too and survived because he was able to swim back to the boat once the fire was out. He says they tried calling the Italian authorities "at least 20 times." He says on the last attempt, they asked for the Libyan coastguard’s number but the Italians allegedly "refused to give it to them."

Alarm Phone says as soon as they were alerted to the problems on board the boat at 2:30 on Thursday morning, they tried to call the Libyan coastguard but "as usual nobody answered." They then called the maritime coordination offices in Rome and Malta (MRCC Rome and RCC Malta) "to inform them of the events and ask their cooperation in ensuring a quick rescue." According to Alarm Phone, "both these authorities interrupted the calls and our later calls were not answered."

 

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