from La Repubblica, by Marco Mensurati
(Onboard Mare Jonio) – The alarm ceased in the middle of the night, right when the weather conditions were worsening. A tugboat navigating across the oil rigs in front of Zuwara, tracked down the sinking dinghy carrying 120 people including women and children and allegedly rescued the people onboard. To this date it is not confirmed whether there have been any victims as it was initially said by the person sending out the SOS from onboard the dinghy.
Regrettably, the potential number of victims in yesterday’s emergency rescue is not the only aspect that still needs to be clarified. In light of the unfolding of yesterday’s events, it is all more evident that the Libyan Search And Rescue (SAR) Zone is nothing but a morbid joke.
The alarm was sent out at around 4pm, when Mare Jonio’s command center picked up and re-transmitted the call coming from Alarm Phone. Mare Jonio is a ship that is part of the Mediterranea project, a joint rescue mission with the European NGOs Sea Watch and Open Arms; Alarm Phone is an emergency voluntary-run service retransmitting all distress signals picked up in the Mediterranean (distress-signals is the current name for migrants sos calls). The alarm-call received by Mare Jonio was not very clear, therefore, the Italians called Alarm Phone asking for the number of the satellite phone that had made the sos call and their initial location. Once this information was received, Mare Jonio contacted the vessel directly to gather further information on the situation and the people people on board.
Despite receiving all Alarm Phone’s communication in real-time, for many hours the Libyan coast-guard did not respond to the Italian volunteers’ calls, and much more worryingly, it also failed to send out any Navtext – the general alarm that oughts to be transmitted when there is an ailing vessel, so that all neighbouring ships, fishing boats and oil tankers can converge for the rescue.
Mare Jonio thus compelled the Italian Coast Guard to act. However, the first reply was that the emergency was happening beyond their space of intervention, as the location was indeed part of the Libyan SAR area. Eventually the Coast Guard instructed Mare Jonio’s command center to contact the Libyan Coast Guard instead. This was very promptly done also via email, without any resulting consequence (except for the grotesque yet bureaucratically impeccable call from Rome’s headquarters to the ship’s officers to put the Libyan Coast Guard as the email’s primary recipient rather than in copy “cc”).
Despite the recipients details were rapidly changed, nothing else actually happened. By 8pm the dinghy was continuing to sink, 100 miles away from the ONGs’ vessels, with the lingering threat of a rapidly worsening weather. At 7.32pm Alarm Phone sent an email (copied to the Libyan, Italian and Maltese coast guards) with a second message informing that on the dinghy people were starting to die (“Some have died drowning”). The turning point came shortly after. Around 8pm the Italian Coast Guard managed to locate the satellite phone that had made the first call, using the number that Mare Jonio’s volunteers had previously given them (who in turn had received it from Alarm Phone). The coordinates of the dinghy were thus dispatched to both Mare Jonio and to the Libyan Coast Guard, who though once again failed to respect the procedure and dd not send out any general alarm via Navtext.
“We cannot do it, it is an area beyond our competence – they explained from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome to MP Nicola Fratoianni, complaining for their inactivity from onboard Mare Jonio-. We managed to locate the position of the number you gave us and we have informed the Libyans of their position, I know communications are difficult, but this is it. As far as we know a Libyan vessel is headed to the area, we have no further information.”
The vessel refereed to by the MRCC operator was probably the oil rigs off-shore supplier, which by 2am reached the dinghy, which had been at the wave’s mercy since the afternoon. From that moment onwards official information became very scarce.“The alarm seems to be off” was explained from Rome, where officers seemed to have no other information on the operation: neither the name of the vessel that rescued the dinghy nor the location of the “place of safety” where the Libyans were “hosting” rescued migrants. Finally, there is also another vital question that no one seems able to respond to: what would have happened if the Italians had not been there to receive and dispatch the alarm in that stretch of sea that is completely abandoned by the international community?