Italian authorities were not quick enough to respond to various distress calls from the sinking boat, and, as a result, failed to protect the 'right to life' of drowning migrants, UN rules.
In October 2013, 200 migrants, including 60 children, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as their boat capsized. The vessel had sent several distress calls to Italian authorities on a nearby coast but no one came to their help.
Almost eight years after the incident, the United Nations Human Rights Committee on Wednesday concluded that Italy could have saved the migrants if it had not failed in its international responsibility to promptly respond to the repeated requests.
The investigation came after a joint complaint by four survivors, three Syrians and one Palestinian, whose familes died in the incident.
Why did Italy ignore the calls?
The boat was carrying 400 people - the majority of them were Syrians. As it came under fire from another boat soon after leaving Libya, it sent multiple distress calls to Italian authorities and also shared its coordinates.
In response, the Italian authorities told them the vessel was not in their rescue zone, and provided them the number for the Maltese rescue operation, the UN says. By the time a team from Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre arrived at the scene, the boat had already sunk. An Italian ship was dispatched to the scene only after Malta issued an urgent request.
The UN report quoting Helene Tigroudja, a member of the Human Rights Committee, says the case is complex, due to the location of the incident.
“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,” Tigroudja said.
But under international law, the states have a responsibility to react immediately in case of distress that requires urgent attention.
“Had the Italian authorities immediately directed its naval ship and coast guard boats after the distress calls, the rescue would have reached the vessel, at the latest, two hours before it sank,” she said.
Italy is also yet to explain why the naval vessel, ITS Libra, which was instructed to support the rescue operation at Malta’s request, was delayed in arriving at the scene despite being only an hour away.
Italy’s migrant pushback policy
Every year, thousands of people fleeing war, conflict and persecution in their countries attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea in order to reach Europe. In 2020, 979 migrants perished at sea, even despite crossings having slowed considerably given the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the rate of arrivals on Italian shores increased significantly, up to 149% between mid-2019 and mid-2020.
Italy, one of the countries migrants arrive by sea along with Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta, has come under criticism many times due to their response to the crisis.
Ten days before the UN’s report on the 2013 incident, the Court of Rome reached a historic verdict, saying that Italy’s migrant pushbacks to Slovenia were illegal. Italy was sending the migrants, including the ones who clearly stated their intention to seek asylum in Italy, to Slovenia on the basis of an agreement signed in 1996.
The decision came after an asylum seeker, who applied for international protection in Italy, was sent to Croatia, then forcefully sent to Bosnia, and eventually ended up living in the streets.
Only last year, Italy sent 1,240 people to Slovenia
, where many of them were also rejected and ended up as far away as Bosnia again.
Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on January 12, called Italy to grant permission to carry out five migrant evacuation flights from Libya to Italy -- a precaution that could prevent migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.
The signatories said creating such "humanitarian corridors allow people who have fled their countries and who are in a situation of vulnerability to exercise their right to apply for asylum by using legal and safe pathways."
Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right political party, League, three weeks ago appeared on trial accused of abusing his power while he was the interior minister, as well as having blocked the arrival of 116 migrants from disembarking from the Gregoretti coast guard boat in 2019.
His anti-migrant rhetoric is also blamed for triggering xenophobia in the country as he insists migration is out of control. Before leaving his tenure, he cut off migrants’ access to refugee programs and dismantled Italy’s official refugee camps.