Doomed to drown: the desperate last calls of the migrants no one wanted to rescue
Written by Peter Popham in Rome
Friday, 25 May 2007

A young Eritrean looks straight at the camera, waving a red sweatshirt above his head. The mother in brown near the bow clasps her small baby as the propeller of the Yamaha outboard engine twists uselessly in the water. The sun beats down on the turquoise water as a swell begins to lift the waves over and into the woefully crowded boat.
This is what we are in the habit of calling "an everyday tragedy". But it is the first time it has happened in front of our eyes.

The photograph was taken from a Maltese armed forces reconnaissance plane on Monday morning 80 nautical miles south of Malta, roughly halfway between the coast of Libya and the southernmost point of the EU. At around the same time, some of the 53 people on the boat, all of them from Eritrea, were begging their friends and relatives in Europe by satellite phone to help them, saying the boat's engine had stalled, that the sea was rising and that the boat risked being swamped. Calls were placed to Malta, towns in northern Italy and to London.

Nine hours later, at about 6.30pm, a fast offshore patrol vessel of the Maltese armed forces reached the zone where the 10-metre-long boat had been logged. Why this powerful boat, capable of top speeds of more than 80mph, took so long to arrive is a mystery. It drew a blank.

"We continued the search until dark," reported Malta's armed forces chief, General Carmel Varsallo, "extending the zone a further 10km in the hope of finding something, but found nothing." There is probably a simple explanation. An Eritrean woman called Lepetan, living in the Italian city of Bologna, who believes that her brother was among the passengers, had spoken to several people in the boat on Monday morning. "They called me to say water was coming on board, the engine was broken, they wanted me to get people to help them," she said. "Nobody had come to help, they told me."

She - and others in Italy who had received similar calls - phoned the coastguard on the island of Lampedusa,south of Sicily, to relay the message. When Lepetan called the boat back at 2.30pm, there were no Eritrean voices at the other end, only a recorded message in Italian telling her to try later.

In the city of Bergamo, an Eritrean called Jonas had the same experience. On board this nameless boat were Jonas's brother, sister and fiancé, and several other relatives, about 10 in total. He had spoken to them repeatedly during the morning, after he had received the first call pleading for help. But when he called again at 3pm, the phone was dead.

It is possible that the batteries of both phones died at the same time. Possible but unlikely. Given the rising swell, the dead motor and the insane overcrowding of the boat, it seems more likely that it went down some time after 2pm on Monday with all hands. The Maltese patrol vessel, arriving more than four hours later, found no trace.

Nameless people, a nameless boat, a horrible death, all made shocking and vivid by the photograph and the reports of phone calls to people who are now our neighbours in Europe.

"Imagine if there had been 53 white Europeans on that boat, what would have been done to rescue them," said Laura Boldrini, in the Rome office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. "It is clear discrimination, as if their lives don't have the same value." But the deaths of these 53 migrants - supposing that a miracle has not intervened and their rudderless boat does not swim back into view during the next few days - is far from uncommon. At least 10,000 people are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean attempting to cross illegally into Europe. Many of them, caught by sudden storms, never had a chance. These ones did.

This week's tragic events recalled the incident in 2005 when a much bigger boat packed with around 200 Africans was caught in a storm and spotted by the Maltese military five miles off the small island of Gozo. Last year a transcript of the exchanges between rescuers and army command was leaked to Malta Today, the Maltese Sunday paper.

The captain of the fast rescue boat sent to the site told his command: "There seem to be a big quantity of people... 4.3 miles from Gozo... heading north." HQ radioed back: "Captain A Mallia... told us to monitor them and keep a distance away from them."

Commenting on the leaked exchange, the Maltese Prime Minister's office said it was "standard practice" to keep at a distance from migrant boats "in order to verify the intentions of the persons on board". "Operational units are kept at a safe distance to avoid interfering with the migrants' boat in any manner which could compromise its safety." On that occasion some 30 people died before Italians rescued the rest in Italian waters.

If the 53 Eritreans on board this boat had been rescued by the Maltese, they would have found themselves packed into an old British Army camp outside the town of Safi, which is already full to the brim with around 3,000 would-be immigrants: equal to the combined force of the island's police and army. The cost of keeping the immigrants eats up 49 per cent of the police and army budget.

Nor do the immigrants have any desire to be in Malta. The enterprising ones escape and pay sailors to take them to Sicily. Malta's crisis demands a European solution. But the EU has no appetite for this one.

Yesterday General Vassallo said his force had done "everything possible" to locate the drifting boat. Meanwhile, every day tens of such boats are venturing across the Mediterranean from Libya. A journalist in Valetta said: "We've reached an emergency situation very early in the season. We're in for a very tough summer."