Today, three survivors of a tragedy that caused the deaths of 63 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, filed a complaint at the Brussels Tribunal of First Instance against the Belgian army for failing to provide assistance to persons in distress.
The complaint, lodged with the support of a coalition of NGOs, alleges that in April 2011, as the conflict in Libya was at its height, Belgian’s military forces present in the area received distress signals from the migrants’ boat and failed to respond, violating the obligation to assist persons in danger. As a result, 72 people were left to drift at sea for 15 days, despite their calls for help being registered and direct contact with an airplane, helicopters and military vessels.
“A helicopter flew over our boat four or five times. It came really close to us. We could see the pilots. We thought it was going to come back to save us. But nobody came,” said one of the survivors of the tragedy.
The case also calls into question the responsibility of Italian, French, Spanish, British, Canadian and U.S military forces present in the area. The survivors have already lodged complaints in Italy, France and Spain. Following unsatisfactory responses from the U.K, the U.S.A. and Canada, where victims are unable to launch proceedings themselves, requests for information have been submitted under freedom of information laws, in order to obtain details on the precise positions and actions of their armed forces at the time of these events.
“The indifference shown by military forces present in the area led to the deaths of 63 people. This is unacceptable. The victims and the survivors deserve justice,” declared the lawyers of the coalition.
An investigation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, published in April 2012, concluded that numerous opportunities to rescue those on board were lost and that the flag States of vessels close to the boat violated their obligation to rescue people in distress (see report “Lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea: Who is responsible?”). In a recent judgement concerning Italy’s treatment of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, the European Court for Human Rights qualified the indifference shown towards such people as intolerable and affirmed that the Mediterranean Sea is not a legal vacuum.
In March 2011, during the Libyan conflict, 72 migrants embarked on a dinghy bound for Italy. They soon lost control of their boat and launched a call for help. Their appeal was received by the Italian coast guards, who transmitted it to the NATO coordination centre and to military vessels present in the area, providing the position of the boat. The distress calls were repeated every 4 hours for 10 days. But no-one came to their assistance. The dinghy was seen by an airplane, military helicopters, two fishing vessels and a large military vessel, which ignored their distress signals. After 15 days adrift, the boat washed up on the Libyan coast with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom died shortly afterwards.
63 people, including 20 women and 3 children died (See Press Statement, “Death of 63 migrants in the Mediterranean: Complaint in France holds the French military to account” and the Forensic Oceanography report (in French, soon to come in English)).
In the course of 2011, marked by crises in North Africa, it is estimated that over 2000 people died or disappeared in the Mediterranean, despite the massive presence of military vessels with sophisticated equipment in the waters off the coast of Libya. This complaint underlines the unconditional obligation to provide assistance at sea incumbent on all parties present.
*The NGO Coalition supporting the survivors is composed of the following organisations: The Aire Centre, Agenzia Habeshia, Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana (ARCI), Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione (ASGI), Boats4People, Canadian Centre for International Justice, Coordination et initiatives pour réfugiés et immigrés (Ciré), Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (FIDH), Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigré.e.s (GISTI), Ligue belge des droits de l’Homme (LDH), Ligue française des droits de l’Homme (LDH), Migreurop, Progress Lawyers Network, Réseau euro-méditerranéen des droits de l’Homme (REMDH), Unione Forense per la Tutela dei Diritti Umani (UFTDU).
Read the text of the complaint filed this morning in Belgium (only in French)