Report: NATO shares blame over Libya migrant boat deaths

The boat on which 63 migrants died was heading for the Italian port of Lampedusa, pictured here in April 2011.

Story highlights

  • A boat carrying migrants left Tripoli with 72 passengers on board, of whom 63 died
  • NATO and other vessels failed to help despite a distress call, a Council of Europe report finds
  • The boat drifted for 15 days before it finally washed back ashore in conflict-torn Libya
  • At least 1,500 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year, the report says

A catalog of failures by NATO and European coastguard and naval forces led to the deaths of 63 people fleeing the conflict in Libya by sea last March, a damning Council of Europe report said Thursday.

Vessels in the area failed to respond to distress calls, and a "vacuum of responsibility" meant no one assumed a duty to help the stricken boat as it drifted in the Mediterranean Sea, the report said.

As a result, only 9 of the 72 migrants who boarded the boat in Tripoli -- supposedly headed for the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa -- survived the 15-day voyage at sea. The boat eventually drifted back to the Libyan coast with a handful of survivors.

Italian search and rescue authorities, NATO, naval vessels in the area, the Libyan authorities and reckless smugglers are among those who share responsibility for the deaths, the report said.

It also highlights that this case is only one of many, with at least 1,500 lives lost last year as migrant boats tried to cross the Mediterranean.

Authored by Dutch lawmaker Tineke Strik and adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Thursday, the report is due to be debated by the assembly next month.

Called "Lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea: who is responsible?" it highlights gaps in the maritime legal framework and the failure of NATO and the nations involved in the Libya conflict to plan adequately for an exodus of refugees and asylum seekers.

In the case of the boat from Libya, the report pieces together what happened from credible witness testimony and other evidence.

The passengers, migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa who included 50 men, 20 women and 2 babies, were led to the small, rubber boat by Libyan militia members. Smugglers then removed much of the food and water on board to cram more people in.

After more than 18 hours at sea, with fuel and supplies running short and no land in sight, the boat's captain called a priest, who contacted the Italian maritime rescue service, which in turn alerted boats in the area, the report said.

"No one went to the aid of this boat, despite a distress call logged by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, which pinpointed the boat's position," the report said.

"There were also a number of alleged direct contacts between the boat in distress and other vessels, including a helicopter that dropped biscuits and water, but never returned, two fishing vessels, both of which refused to provide assistance, and a large military vessel which came into close contact with the boat, but ignored obvious distress signals."

When the boat finally washed back ashore, the 10 people left alive were imprisoned. One later died after failing to receive medical care, the report said.

The report makes a series of recommendations to prevent future tragedies of this kind, adding: "In this case, many opportunities for saving the lives of the persons on board the boat were lost."

One recommendation is to ensure that European nations "fill the vacuum of responsibility" if the relevant authorities, in this case Libya, do not fulfill their search and rescue obligations off their shores, the report said.

Another is to ensure that there are clear guidelines on what constitutes a distress signal and a vessel in distress.

The report also recommends taking measures to tackle the issue of commercial vessels not wanting to help migrant boats out of fear of being caught up in criminal activities, losing out financially or falling foul of an ongoing dispute between Italy and Malta over where the refugees are taken.

NATO and its member states should also investigate why their vessels failed to respond, the report said.

Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to enter European Union countries. Many have also sought to reach Malta, which also lies relatively close to the North African coast.

The Council of Europe is an international organization bringing together 47 countries. It seeks to "create a common democratic and legal area throughout the whole of the continent," according to its mission statement.

The members of the Parliamentary Assembly are appointed by the parliaments of each member state.