“We are dying, please”

Mohanned Jammo, a Syrian doctor on board a ship 61 miles off Lampedusa, was asking the Italian Coast Guard for help. “We are dying, please”, he said. Then the ship capsized. Español Português

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
17 May 2017
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Migrants and refugees on a boat approaching the Greek island of Kos. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images. 22 February 2017. All rights reserved.

"He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool." – Albert Camus

There are articles you write because you have to. And there are articles you write just because you need to – for you wouldn’t be able to sleep if you didn’t.

After the results of the French elections were out and Mr. Macron was pronounced the winner, I was relieved. Like most Europeans, the possibility of having Madame Le Pen elected as French president was a nightmare. Macron’s victory signaled that there still is some hope for Europe after all. Populists have just lost two important battles: the Netherlands and France have chosen freedom and pluralism over nativism and intolerance.

A few days later, however, as I was going through my notes to finish a piece on Mr. Macron’s victory and the resurgence of Europe, an article caught my eye. It read:  Italian forces ignored a sinking ship full of Syrian refugees. The article, published by the Italian magazine L´Espresso, was based on five recordings which suggested that in 2013 the Italian authorities ignored a distress call from a ship carrying refugees. The ship was coming from Libya and capsized 61 miles south of Lampedusa. More than 260 refugees died. Sixty of them were children.

Aboard the ship there were four hundred and eighty Syrian refugees who had escaped from the war ravaging their country since 2011 and had been looking for asylum in Libya. When conflict broke out in Libya, they decided to flee again. This time, sadly, most of them didn’t make it. The story is not new nor, unfortunately, unique. But it was only on May 8, 2017 that we got to know exactly what happened on October, 10, 2013. The five telephone conversations recorded reflect how Italian authorities abandoned – this time at least - the refugees to their fate.

When conflict broke out in Libya, they decided to flee again. This time, sadly, most of them didn’t make it. 

In the first recording, you can hear one of the passengers – Mohanned Jammo, a doctor – asking the Italian Coast Guard Headquarters in Rome for help. Dr. Jammo tells the officer on the line that “the boat is going down”. She asks for his position. He gives it. This happened at 12:39 p.m.

In the second recording, the doctor asks the coast guard if help is on its way. A man answers and tells him, time and again, to call Malta. “Please, please, quickly call Malta directly, they are close, ok?” This happened at 1.17 p.m.  

In the third recording, the doctor calls the Italian coast guard again, letting them know that the Maltese authorities had told him that they were closer to Lampedusa. The woman on the other side of the line keeps telling him “you have to call Malta, sir”. The doctor asks: “Lampedusa is Italy? We are dying, please”. This happened at 1.48 p.m.

In a fourth recording, you can hear the Maltese authorities asking the Italian authorities to send a nearby ship to rescue the refugees. The Italian officer refuses, as it would put Italy “in charge of the transfer to the nearest coast”. The officer was apparently worried that if a patrol boat were dispatched, it would have to transport the refugees to Lampedusa. This happened at 4:44 p.m.

In the fifth and final recording, the Maltese authorities ask the Italians to let them know that the ship had capsized. This happened at 5:07 p.m. The Maltese officer tells his Italian counterpart that they have to send in their patrol boat, because the Maltese one wouldn’t arrive on time to rescue the refugees. It was only then, almost four hours after the first call, that the Italian authorities agreed to send in their ship, the Libra, which was 20 miles away from the refugees - between thirty and sixty minutes away. The Libra reached the scene at six o’clock. The boat carrying the refugees had indeed capsized and 268 of them had died. Only 26 bodies were recovered. And only 212 out of 480 people aboard the ship survived.

More than 1.300 refugees have died in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year - nearly 250 during the second weekend in May. Good weather, boats in poor condition and merciless smugglers will only make a bad situation worse in the following months, as the number of refugees trying to make it to our shores will in all probability increase. Despite the attempts to criminalize NGO´s – accusing them of “colluding” with smugglers and of acting as a “pull factor” for more crossings –, they rescued more than 46.000 people in the Mediterranean in 2016 - over 26% of all rescue operations. The percentage is expected to go up to 33% this year.

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Approximately 380 refugees get rescued on 11 Dec 2016 in international waters offshore the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea by the NGO SOS Mediterranee and transferred to Sicily. Laurin Schmid SOS Mediterranee/DPA/PAL Images. All rights reserved.

Without questioning the efforts made by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, during this humanitarian crisis, you can only qualify Europe´s approach to the crisis as a tragic failure. Search and rescue missions may not be the solution for the refugee problem, but what other option is there? For how much longer will we have to wait for European leaders to adopt common-sense humane policies to address this crisis?

We have failed to provide safer, legal routes for refugees and migrants to reach our shores. And the lack of assistance looks more and more like a deadly deterrent: a strategy to prevent future crossings. The Mediterranean is now the main entry route for refugees, because now land borders are closed. The approach of trying to keep the refugees out of Europe not only goes against everything Europe stands for, it is also failing miserably.

For how much longer will we have to wait for European leaders to adopt common-sense humane policies to address this crisis?

If you were, like me, about to celebrate the victory of yet another politician who promises a better future for his country and a better European Union for us all, you should first listen to these recordings. And as you do, please imagine that you are in the middle of the sea desperately asking for help, probably with your children, and that it takes those you expect to come to your rescue – who are only 20 miles away - four full hours to get to the scene. Admittedly, this is fortunately not the norm. There are courageous and selfless people working everyday to save lives, and to risk their own, in the sea or on the ground. Nevertheless, cases such as the one the recordings just made public in Italy describe show the underlying unwillingness of the European Union – and the majority of its member countries – to uphold the same human rights within the EU that they so eagerly demand without. They show a very different Europe from the one founded upon the concept of human dignity.

I confess that after listening to the recordings, I found it impossible to write about the French elections. Or about the European Union. I kept on hearing Dr. Mohanned Jammo’s words: “We are dying, please”, “We are dying, please”, “We are dying, please”. So, I guess this qualifies as one of those articles you need to write. But I am still not able to sleep.  

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