How 62 Refugees Escaping Libya Died at Sea While Everyone Looked the Other Way

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.

Two weeks adrift soon take their toll on the tightly-packed refugees: only 10 out of the 72 on board will ultimately survive the ordeal – and one of the survivors will die in a Libyan detention center.

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.

 An independent research team from the University of London has backed up the Council’s claims, finding in a detailed forensic report that it was exceptionally unlikely NATO ships – as well as Italian and Maltese vessels –  could have simply “missed” the free-drfiting boat in an exceptionally well-populated shipping area. The UK has also found itself under uncomfortable scrutiny, after Goldsmith’s conclusion that the lone helicopter looked awfully similar to a British Army craft. (The British Ministry of Defence currently denies any such British helicopters were in the region). 

NATO, for its part, claims that their vessels never made contact with or saw the refugee ship – although after initially denying it, the alliance now admits that it did recieve a distress call from the beleaguered ship. NATO noted the call was forwarded to a nearby Spanish frigate, best placed to help – a claim the Spanish have disputed, demanding that NATO “prove it” – a challenge the alliance has yet to answer. 

This incident has put the plight of Africans fleeing profound government strife back into the news cycle and the public eye, and that’s a good thing: like all boat people, these immigrants from Northern Africa’s recent conflicts are in grave danger. UNHCR found a record 1,500 migrants of 15 different nationalities died in 2011 en route to Europe, while a record 58,000 arrived in the region by sea in the same year. These refugees were also used as pawns by Gadhafi’s now-defunct government: Libyan authorities, protesting NATO and EU airstrikes willfully turned a blind-eye as African refugees streamed onto unsafe vessels. 

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.