The number of people who lost their lives during the shipwreck a few metres off the coast of Cutro – in the Italian region of Calabria – has risen to 85. These people – adults and minors, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Pakistan – left from Izmir, Turkey.
In the wake of the shipwreck, it has become clear that we are dealing with another fatal consequence of the EU’s securitarian policies and the blame-shifting between Frontex (the European border control agency) and the Italian Coast Guard for the failure to rescue.
A sports hall was turned into a funeral hall for the 66 people who were found dead after the shipwreck in #Crotone.
After the serious shipwreck off Lampedusa in 2013, EU politicians said: "This must never happen again."
Europe, these deaths are yours! pic.twitter.com/PArb3AYgDc
— Sea-Watch International (@seawatch_intl) March 1, 2023
To begin with, it is worth noting that the Ionian route connecting Turkey and Calabria is not new. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that in the last week alone, 695 people reached Calabria by sea. Last year, 15,000 of the 105,000 people who arrived in Italy by sea were on this route, about twice as many as in 2021. This is mainly due to the fact that the eastern route leading to Greece is closed because of the systematic rejections by the Greek authorities of those attempting to leave Turkey. Greece’s human rights violations – with the consent of Frontex itself – have long been proven by numerous reports and journalistic surveys. Among these, At Europe’s borders: between impunity and criminalisation, by the Greek Council for Refugees, contain a remarkable amount of evidence and testimonies concerning the Greek state’s illegal push-backs. “These testimonies,” reads the report, “offer a disturbing insight into the organised and systematic nature of these illegal practices”. The latest Aegean Boat Report also revealed an alarming scenario: ‘692 people who set sail on 25 boats in the Aegean Sea were turned back between the 20th and 26th of February’.
This is the context faced by those who regularly get stuck or rejected in Turkey, bearing in mind that the latter is also a privileged partner of the EU: remember, in fact, that the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal is still in force and provides for the containment and readmission – by Turkey – of refugees mainly from unsafe countries (such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine). As a consequence of this deal, people’s human rights are systematically violated and they are detained in overcrowded Greek refugee camps or returned to Turkey.
Those who make it out try to reach Europe via other routes, such as the one leading to Calabria, which, nevertheless, lacks frequent SAR (search and rescue) operations by NGOs – which are mainly located in the area between Sicily and the North African coast. Although the decrees against NGOs are yet another example of repression against migrants, as they largely limit search and rescue operations – violating, among other things, the Law of the Sea and the Constitution – their absence on this route is not the direct consequence of the new measure adopted. In this specific case, the responsibility is to be attributed to the lack of rescue by institutional and supranational bodies. Following the shipwreck, in fact, the Crotone Public Prosecutor’s Office opened an enquiry into the flaws in the rescue operations, investigating the actions and communications between the Coast Guard, Frontex and the Guardia di Finanza. Both Frontex and the Coast Guard held each other responsible for the missed rescues.
As reconstructed by reporter Eleonora Vasques of Euractiv – despite President Giorgia Meloni’s claim that Italy did not receive any emergency communication from Frontex – apparently, the latter had warned Italy of a boat carrying a large number of people – even in the below deck – before the shipwreck occurred.
Quoting from Vasques:
Euractiv asked Frontex whether the rescue call had been given, but the EU agency replied that ‘the national authorities are competent to classifying “search and rescue” (SAR) operations, according to international law’. After the warning, Italy mobilised two patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza (GDF) and launched a police operation[…]. However, due to weather and sea conditions, the boats were forced to return to port, the GDF stated in a press release on Monday 27 February. The GDF is not qualified or equipped to carry out SAR operations as this is the responsibility of the Italian Coast Guard.
“I nostri esperti hanno individuato alcuni segnali che indicano che l’imbarcazione potrebbe trasportare un gran numero di persone, ad esempio la telecamera termica a bordo dell’aereo ha rilevato una significativa risposta termica dai portelli aperti a prua”, ha spiegato Frontex. https://t.co/PcxaXVVeze
— Sergio Scandura (@scandura) March 5, 2023
Frontex stated that once the boat was located, they had promptly informed the International Coordination Centre of Operation Themis, and other relevant Italian authorities and provided the boat’s position, infrared images, course and speed.
In turn, the Guardia di Finanza, according to what was reconstructed by journalist Nello Trocchia in Domani, who had access to the reports on the missed rescue, allegedly reported the emergency situation to the Coast Guard:
Quoting from Trocchia:
The naval units, at about 03:30 am, returned to port in Crotone due to bad weather and sea conditions. There is still time for rescue operations but – quite importantly – no alarm is launched at this time, no rescue and salvage operations are in progress but rather a border police operation, as the Coast Guard is stationary and has not started the SAR procedures. At about 03:40 am, the operations room of the provincial command of the Guardia di Finanza of Vibo Valentia informed the maritime authority of Reggio Calabria that the two ships were forced to stop sailing due to adverse marine weather conditions. ‘The GDF operators asked the maritime authority for the intervention of their own naval units to reach the target, without receiving a reply,’ it reads.
With regard to SAR events that are instead classified as “police operations”, one point must be stressed: for several years now, the vast majority of people found at sea have been classified as “people intercepted in the course of security police operations”.
‘Search and Rescue activities in the central Mediterranean’ – as reporter Duccio Facchini wrote in Altreconomia in 2019 – ‘[…] have become “events attributable to the phenomenon of irregular immigration by sea to the Italian coasts”. The classification in relation to “people” suddenly changed: people are no longer “rescued” but rather “intercepted during security police operations”, technically defined as “Law Enforcement’ operations”’.
However, the Coast Guard itself claims in its guidelines that overcrowding of a vessel is sufficient motivation to trigger rescue operations, even in the absence of an emergency alert – proof of this is the last rescue off Lampedusa, in which the Coast Guard rescued 211 people in danger. In this regard, former Admiral Vittorio Alessandro said that in the first Conte administration, when Matteo Salvini was Minister of the Interior, the organisational framework changed: ‘Since then, the Coast Guard has been playing a different role and when it comes to migrant-related issues police operations prevail over rescue operations. Now operations fall within the control of the Ministry of the Interior, while before the relationship between the Coast Guard and the Interior was reversed’. Moreover, even the current Commander of the Crotone Coast Guard stated that ‘there were conditions to save them’.
Although the government keeps attributing the blame for the shipwreck to the boat drivers alone – a scapegoating that criminalises people who even accidentally find themselves at the helm of a boat or help their travel mates, such as the case of the 17-year-old minor accused of being one of the smugglers in the Cutro shipwreck – there are clearly much more relevant national and supranational responsibilities. Not only is it necessary for truth and justice to prevail in this shipwreck case, but it is more urgent than ever to overcome the securitarian system of borders and repression in order to give primary importance to the protection of the right to freedom of movement.
Cover image via Twitter/AJ+