MILAN — Almost four years ago, 268 Syrian refugees — including 60 children — lost their lives in a shipwreck about 60 miles south of Lampedusa, a small Italian island that sits between Sicily and Tunisia. It was considered one of the worst tragedies of the European refugee crisis, but a leaked audiotape published Monday by the magazine L’Espresso suggested that Italian authorities let the Syrians drown despite being alerted several hours earlier that the refugees’ ship was in danger.
On the evening of Oct. 10, 2013, a ship carrying at least 480 people left Zuwarah, in northwestern Libya, headed for Lampedusa. Most of the passengers were Syrians who had left their country for Libya when conflict erupted at home in 2011, and were then forced to flee Libya when fighting broke out there as well.
Their ship sailed until 5 p.m. the next day, when it capsized 61 nautical miles south of Lampedusa. While some of the passengers were rescued by Italian and Maltese ships, the majority died before rescuers arrived. The incident caused a media uproar that contributed to the creation of “Mare Nostrum,” the now-defunct Italian navy search-and-rescue operation (that program was replaced in late 2014 by a smaller-scale E.U. program called “Triton”).
But, until Monday, the public did not know that the refugees had alerted Italian authorities that they were in distress as early as five hours before their ship sank. Even though the refugees’ ship called the Italian coast guard and warned that it was floating adrift, taking on water and had wounded children aboard, Italian authorities refused to intervene for several hours.
L’Espresso published five recordings of separate telephone conversations from the day of the incident. In the first, at 12:39 p.m., passenger Mohanned Jammo, a doctor who survived the shipwreck and who had a smartphone with him, calls the headquarters of the Italian coast guard in Rome asking for help. “The boat is going down” and “water is coming into it,” he says. A woman can be heard asking for his position, which he gives.
At 1:17 p.m., Jammo calls again, asking if the coast guard has sent anyone. He is answered by a man who tells him to call Malta instead. “You are near Malta,” the man claims. In truth, the ship was 61 nautical miles from Lampedusa — but 118 nautical miles from Malta.
In a third conversation, at 1:48 p.m., Jammo again calls the coast guard, saying he called Maltese authorities and was told he is closer to Lampedusa. “Lampedusa is Italy?” he asks. “We are dying, please.”
Although the ship was closer to Italian soil, it was in an area of international waters where Malta holds responsibility for search-and-rescue missions under European agreements. But, at the time, Italy had a military vessel about 20 nautical miles from the refugees’ ship, while Malta’s closest ship was 70 nautical miles away. Fabrizio Gatti, the investigative reporter who obtained the recordings, said in a telephone conversation with The Washington Post that the Italian ship, as the closest ship able to help, was obligated to rescue the refugees under international maritime law.
Gatti said he obtained the recordings from “sources in Malta,” who leaked the tapes on the condition of anonymity. He verified the tapes by comparing them with other recordings in possession of Italy’s judicial authorities, who are leading an investigation into the incident. Gatti argued that the tapes show that Italian authorities usually delayed in trying to rescue ships rather than moving immediately.
Gatti refused to speculate about the political implications of the tapes, but the leak comes at a time when anti-refugee sentiment is running high in Italy and nongovernmental organizations that help rescue migrants at sea have been accused of encouraging illegal immigration.
A fourth tape shows that Maltese authorities were willing to take command of the rescue mission but asked their Italian counterparts to send their nearby ship. The Italians refused.
In a gut-wrenching conversation at 4:44 p.m., an Italian coast guard officer tells the Maltese navy that Italy would not move the ship because it “represents an important asset in order to spot new targets” — and because that would put Italy “in charge of transfer to the nearest coast.”
At that point, Malta sent a surveillance plane to check on the refugees. At 5:07 p.m., the Maltese called the Italians, telling them that the refugees’ ship had capsized. They urged the Italians to send their ship because their own would not arrive in time to save the Syrians. Only then did Italy agree to send its ship.
By then, it was too late.