Aerial pictures taken by a light aircraft revealed an Italian coastguard vessel and a commercial cargo ship apparently ignoring a migrants’ boat in distress only a mile away from their position.
On 13 July, the crew of the Moonbird reconnaissance plane, operated by the NGO Sea-Watch and the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative, identified and photographed a small boat with about 60 passengers on board in the central Mediterranean.
The Moonbird crew, which was first alerted by Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants’ boats in distress, notified the Italian and Maltese authorities, sending them the GPS position and telling them that the migrants’ boat was adrift and its engine had failed.
After a few hours, at about 16.30 that day, Moonbird returned to the sighting place. The migrants’ boat was still there, but this time there were two other vessels just a few miles from it. The largest was a merchant ship, the Karewood Star, flying the flag of the Bahamas. The other was an Italian coastguard patrol boat.
Under international maritime law, one or both of the ships should have rescued the migrants. ‘‘Every state,” the law says, “shall require the master of a ship flying its flag … to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost” and “to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected.”
At 8.15pm, having received no update, Moonbird returned to the place of sighting and discovered that the small boat with migrants onboard was still there, but both the cargo ship and the Italian coastguard patrol boat had disappeared.
“We were thinking they would be taken on board,” said an Alarm Phone spokesperson. “However they were still out at sea.”
At that point the Moonbird contacted the captain of the cargo ship, Karewood Star, via radio. However, because of linguistic misunderstandings he was unable to give a valid explanation, the Moonbird crew reported.
The Italian coastguard, in a note released to the press, confirmed it had arrived at the spot and had not taken part in the rescue operations, saying the cargo ship captain had told them he was planning to rescue the migrants.
The Italian officials said the cargo ship was called the Karewood Star, and that it had been called to the scene by the Maltese authorities.
‘‘On reaching the location, the boat was found with about 60 migrants and a merchantman, flying the Bahamas flag, sent there by the Maltese authorities,” wrote the coastguard. According to Italian officers, the cargo ship captain reported he was “ready to carry out the rescue of migrants”.
Almost two days passed before an Italian Guardia di Finanza military ship was able to reach the migrants and save them, a few miles from the island of Lampedusa.
‘‘They were abandoned by European authorities for over 40 hours. While we are glad they survived and were eventually rescued and taken to Lampedusa, we are once again appalled by the cynical non-assistance policies that play out in the Mediterranean and that needlessly endanger so many vulnerable lives,’’ Alarm Phone said.
The captain of the Karewood Star, its owner and the Maltese authorities have been contacted for a comment.