African immigrants stuck in a disabled boat signal for aid in a busy Mediterranean shipping channel. Western warships enforcing NATO’s than-arms embargo against Libya pass by the disabled vessel, but none see fit to respond to the distress call—nor do Italy or Malta, both located close enough to help. Passing fishing vessels are similarly indifferent. A helicopter buzzes the boat twice, dropping some biscuits and water, but no vessels followed.
This was the fate of these hapless African immigrants in March 2011, and now, over a year later, an inquiry has been launched into why they were allowed to drift without assistance for so long.
The Council of Europe conducted a nine-month long investigation that ultimately concluded the defense alliance willfully ignored the plight of the hapless refugees. French human rights lawyers have announced a formal inquiry into the deaths, and although their target is the French navy – which allegedly operated one of the indifferent vessels – the legal team has stated they will go after any party found culpable.
Furthermore, public condemnation of Europe’s contradictory and often callous treatment of these refugees hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed: in May of 2011, Doctors Without Borders issued an open indictment of European refugee polices against those escaping the Libyan conflict, noting the contradiction of waging a war “to protect civilians” while closing European borders to those same at-risk people. The investigation into NATO’s behavior in this case needs to happen soon, especially since boat people are still coming: despite the draw-down in the Libyan conflict. AFP continues to report tales of refugees stranded, left in diplomatic limbo, or even dying in disabled or free-drifting boats.
As the weather improves, Italian authorities are fearful that the stream of refugees from North Africa will ramp up again, further taxing the already-strained Italian port of Lampedusa. It’s obvious that the West cannot, with good conscience, ignore the plight of civilians we have ostensibly been trying to help – and it can only be hoped that NATO’s exposure will provoke us in the West to re-evaluate the morality of our approach to these endangered innocents.