Dying as a result of a transhipment at sea


Snapshots from Lampedusa
the return of the iron boats, the arrivals from Libya, the impasse after the end of PASSIM3 and the responsibilities of the authorities in transhipments at sea

Last weekend, between Thursday 9 and Saturday 11 November, several boats arrived in Lampedusa from Libya and Tunisia. After a month in which there were (almost) no arrivals of ironclad barges, around 12 ironclad boats managed to cross the central Mediterranean in a single weekend. Unknown remains the number of barges intercepted by the Tunisian Guarde Nationale and the number of shipwrecks off Sfax. Those who landed in Lampedusa reported a shipwreck on 10 November in Tunisian waters with dozens missing.

Between the night of 10 and the morning of 11 November, 716 people arrived on 14 boats; only 2 of the 12 arrived from Libya, the rest from the coast of Sfax on iron boats.

On 10 November, during rescue operations carried out by Italian Guard Coast, the (iron) boat capsized with two people missing. The following day, following another shipwreck, Guardia di Finanza units brought the body of a drowned Eritrean boy to Lampedusa.

On 15 November, another shipwreck occurred, also during rescue operations made by Italian Guard Coast.

Approximately 900 people arrived on 14 November.

Between the night of 14 November and 11 am on the morning of 15 November, 1470 people landed on the island of Lampedusa.

In Tunisia there are still thousands of people in the olive fields, everyone knows this, it is the thing that is reported by every person who lands on Lampedusa. The drastic decrease in departures from the coast of Sfax is only due to the repression, controls and abuses taking place there. As repeated many times, from our point of view the real effect of border controls is not to stop departures/arrivals but to make travels more violent, expensive and dangerous.

Between 10 and 17 November, four shipwrecks were recorded with four people missing and one body brought to Lampedusa. Of the four tragic events, 2 occurred during Coast Guard operations.

Despite official reports from AlarmPhone of the presence of dozens of boats at sea (including several iron boats) between the 10th and the 11th of november, rescue operations were carried out by two large vessels: one from the Coast Guard (CP classe 200), the other from the Guardia di Finanza. The CP classe 200, in particular, is not usually deployed for rescue operations, but for inspections at sea (fishing boats, licences, etc.). The size of the trim, in fact, makes it unsuitable for the delicate operations of approach and transhipment in cases, for example, of the recovery of overcrowded iron boats, which are unstable and usually only a few centimetres above sea level. As a cultural mediator who worked in Lampedusa a couple of years ago tells us:

Why the 200? It usually only makes rescues in cases of extreme emergency. They don't tranship persons because it is high and creates huge waves. Either they accompany the boat to Lampedusa or they call the CP 300. It is not their purpose to do SAR...they do control and investigative operations.

[...] this is how a rescue operation should normally take place: you approach with the patrol boat (thinking of the CP300) at about 15 metres, slowly so as not to create waves. At that point the mediator asks people on the distress boat to stay inside and all sits down. He/she tries to reassure and calm them down, figure out how many there are, if there are any profiles to look out for (elderly people, pregnant women, children, sick people). Then he speaks to the first person near the motor and shows him the rope with a circle (slot) and explains that he must put the motor inside this circle. The same is asked of the person on the other side and he must hold it with his hands but not pull and let go. This is simplifying but to explain things you need a person who speaks the language of the people on the boats, this communication cannot be done in Italian. Once this has been done, the patrol boat starts to approach and the mediator keeps repeating that everyone must remain seated and calm and no one must move without the order of the authorities. Once the boat has docked, the mediator starts calling people and reminding them not to move in the boata...... This obviously cannot be explained in Italian to people who do not understand it and should not be done with agitation; the mediator acts as a calm for the people on the boats at sea but also for the guards; these sometimes come for short periods and have no experience or training in this area and are also agitated; for fear of causing an accident they themselves become agitated and this creates great discomfort at the time of operations with shouts of agitation and insults in Italian and English. Which is the last thing needed at that time.

In past years, there have been several shipwrecks at the time of transshipment, and it seems legitimate to ask whether they were due to the manner in which rescue operations were carried out.

The type of assets employed by the Coast Guard (CP 300- or 200-class patrol boats), and the mode of operation employed-which involves rapid transshipments, following the alongside of boats in distress-may make the distribution of life jackets before transshipment begins less essential.

Unlike in NGO-led operations, state-run rescue assets do not use "rhibs," which allow them to approach the boat in distress and "shuttle," between the latter and the rescue vessel.

Yet, according to the testimonies we collected, many of the people operating aboard CG patrol boats complained about the absence of this device, which they considered potentially life-saving.

This has been noted especially as a result of the increase in iron boats - difficult for patrol boats to approach, due to their often sharp and pointed edges, which risk damaging rescue boats. In addition to being structurally unseaworthy, overloading makes them very instable, causing a few inches of wave to cause them to sink within moments. 

In this context, where the approach maneuvers are so complex and dangerous that they have led in some cases to the capsizing of the same boat in distress, might the practice of deploying flotation devices have prevented some deaths?

Would the use of small rhib boats have made it easier to approach the massive CP200, whose high edges, as mentioned, make the asset more suitable for investigation and police operations, rather than rescue?

On Nov. 11, a Guardia di Finanza asset was carrying the body of A.A., an Eritrean boy, to Favaloro Pier. The iron boat he was traveling on, which had departed from Sfax, had wrecked, and by the time authorities arrived on the scene, all the people on board were in the water. From the testimony of friends and siblings, A.A. was being sucked into the whirlpool of water that had been created as the boat sank.

Could his death have been avoided if there had been medics on board the GdF rig? Normally, CISOM medical personnel are on board Italian GdF patrol boats, but in recent weeks they were not present due to the non-renewal of the PASSIM3 project agreement. For the same reason, IOM mediators have not been able to board for several weeks either.

And yet, that of cultural and linguistic mediation is another issue that deserves much attention; the importance, in the excited, dangerous, and delicate moments of rescue, of good communication between those in danger and those who have to rescue emerges strongly.

How is it possible to make sure that people understand what is happening, are aware of the various phases of rescue, and feel safe, limiting sudden reactions that can endanger themselves and also the rescuers, if there is no figure present who can mediate from a linguistic and cultural point of view at that juncture?

As we ask ourselves what happened on November 10 and 11, and whether it could have been avoided with the deployment of additional human resources, let us reflect on how people providing rescue at sea are constantly hindered, whether civilian or institutional, by systemic infrastructures of discrimination, and which do not seem to have efficiency in rescuing lives as a priority.

How is it possible that rescue operations in the past month have lacked the support of medical and mediation personnel?

As pointed out in the October report, the end of the PASSIM3 project and its non-renewal is the reason for the absence of these personnel.

IOM (which provides mediation), CISOM (which provides medical health personnel), and the Ministry of the Interior do not seem to have come to an agreement on renewal, but publicly nothing has been exposed about it.

In this absence of resources, how did the delicate communications during rescue operations at sea take place?

Very often, in Lampedusa, we have observed problematic interactions between institutions and people who survived the journey, where communications take place through shouting, in Italian, with no guarantee of real understanding.

Rather than acting, therefore, to ease the tensions of certain delicate moments, shouting and mutual misunderstanding fuels them. With the words of the mediator above:

Without a cultural mediator, operations become more risky, non-verbal communications can be understood as well as not, and risks are increased.

If we respond to agitation with agitation, this creates chaos, fear and mistakes. It delays people's understanding and increases the risk of accidents...I don't want to generalise, there are different teams, but it's easy to find situations where, during rescue operations, the guards want to do everything fast...if you do a rescue in 15 minutes or in 40 what's the difference? Why the hurry? The hurry creates agitation.

As civil society observers, we wonder how far we can tolerate that infighting between Viminale, Coast Guard, and Organizations can impact rescue and assistance operations at sea so much.