Nato units left 61 African migrants to die of hunger and thirst

Exclusive: Boat trying to reach Lampedusa was left to drift in Mediterranean for 16 days, despite alarm being raised

Jack Shenker in Lampedusa

Refugees from Libya reach Lampedusa

Refugees from Libya reach Lampedusa. A Nato ship failed to rescue a boat in trouble – leaving 61 people on board to die. Photograph: Francesco Malavolta/EPA

Dozens of African migrants were left to die in the Mediterranean after a number of European and Nato military units apparently ignored their cries for help, the Guardian has learned.A boat carrying 72 passengers, including several women, young children and political refugees, ran into trouble in late March after leaving Tripoli for the Italian island of Lampedusa. Despite alarms being raised with the Italian coastguard and the boat making contact with a military helicopter and a Nato warship, no rescue effort was attempted.
All but 11 of those on board died from thirst and hunger after their vessel was left to drift in open waters for 16 days. “Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard,” said Abu Kurke, one of only nine survivors. “By the final days, we didn’t know ourselves … everyone was either praying, or dying.”

International maritime law compels all vessels, including military units, to answer distress calls from nearby boats and to offer help where possible. Refugee rights campaigners have demanded an investigation into the deaths, while the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has called for stricter co-operation among commercial and military vessels in the Mediterranean in an effort to save human lives.

“The Mediterranean cannot become the wild west,” said spokeswoman Laura Boldrini. “Those who do not rescue people at sea cannot remain unpunished.”

Her words were echoed by Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who runs the refugee rights organisation Habeshia, and who was one of the last people to be in communication with the migrant boat before the battery in its satellite phone ran out.

“There was an abdication of responsibility which led to the deaths of over 60 people, including children,” he claimed. “That constitutes a crime, and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner.”

This year’s political turmoil and military conflict in north Africa have fuelled a sharp rise in the number of people attempting to reach Europe by sea, with up to 30,000 migrants believed to have made the journey across the Mediterranean over the past four months. Large numbers have died en route; last month more than 800 migrants of different nationalities who left on boats from Libya never made it to European shores and are presumed dead.


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