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Italy 'failed to protect life' in 2013 drowning of 200 people, rules UN

Kaamil Ahmed
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Ciro Fusco/EPA</span>
Photograph: Ciro Fusco/EPA

Italy failed in its duty to protect human life by delaying a rescue mission for a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, the UN Human Rights Committee found on Wednesday.

More than 200 people who had been on board drowned on 11 October 2013 after repeated requests for help were ignored, according to a ruling by the committee on a case brought by Syrian and Palestinian survivors who lost their relatives.

The boat was carrying 400 people, many of them Syrians, when it left Libya. It sent out a call for help after shots were fired at it from another boat.

According to the investigation, the Italian authorities responded to the distress calls by referring the situation to the Maltese coastguard. It was not until almost five hours later, when the boat had already capsized, that a Maltese boat arrived at the scene.

“Had the Italian authorities immediately directed its naval ship and coastguard boats after the distress calls, the rescue would have reached the vessel at the latest two hours before it sank,” said committee member Hélène Tigroudja.

“The accident happened in the international waters within the Maltese search and rescue zone but the location was indeed closest to Italy and to one of its naval ships.”

Related: EU border force 'complicit' in illegal campaign to stop refugees landing

The committee said Italy had a duty under international law to protect the lives of anyone in distress at sea and to support rescue missions.

It called on Italy to hold an independent investigation and prosecute anyone responsible.

The committee’s finding was announced as the UNHCR called for an extra $100m (£730,000) in funding, highlighting the need to protect people along the migratory routes to Europe.

It said increasing violence in Africa’s Sahel region, which has displaced 2.9 million people, as well as new displacement caused by conflict in Ethiopia, raised concerns about more people trying to reach Europe.

“We hear harrowing first-hand accounts of brutality and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer along the routes towards the Mediterranean. Many fall prey to traffickers and smugglers and are abused, extorted, raped, and sometimes killed or left to die,” said Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the Mediterranean sea crisis.

The UNHCR said the extra funding would be used to support and protect migrants, as well as to educate people about the risks of the journey to Europe. It called on countries to ensure there were safe and legal routes for refugees.

More than 1,000 people died or went missing trying to reach Europe from north Africa in 2020 and another 480 died or went missing from the west African coast.

Last week, 43 people died when a boat capsized in the Mediterranean, hours after leaving the Libyan coast.