The Left-to-Die Boat
The deadly drift of a migrants’ boat in the Central Mediterranean
The Forensic Oceanography project was launched in summer 2011 to support a coalition of NGOs demanding accountability for the deaths of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea while that region was being tightly monitored by the NATO-led coalition intervening in Libya. The efforts were focused on what is now known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which sixty-three migrants lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area.
By going “against the grain” in our use of surveillance technologies, we were able to reconstruct with precision how events unfolded and demonstrate how different actors operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea used the complex and overlapping jurisdictions at sea to evade their responsibility for rescuing people in distress. The report we produced formed the basis for a number of ongoing legal petitions filed against NATO member states.
- Charles Heller
- Lorenzo Pezzani
- SITU Research
- BBC radio documentary with Lorenzo Pezzani, October 2012
- “Migrant boat tragedy: UK crew may have seen doomed vessel,” Jack Shenker and Kim Willsher, The Guardian 11 April 2012
- “Per una contro-cartografia del mediterraneo,” Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, Uninomade 19 Nov 2012 (Italian)
Forensic Oceanography – video report on the Left-to-Die boat (FULL-LENGTH)
Monitoring the Mediterranean
In response to the Libyan uprising, an international coalition launched a military intervention in the country. As of 23 March 2011, NATO started enforcing an arms embargo off the coast of Libya. During the period of the events of the “left-to-die boat” case, the central Mediterranean Sea was being monitored with unprecedented scrutiny, enabling NATO and participating states to become aware of any distress of migrants—and therefore be effective in assisting them. The Forensic Oceanography report turned the knowledge generated through surveillance means into evidence of responsibility for the crime of nonassistance.
Video interview with survivor Dan Haile Gebre, conducted by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller on 22 December 2011.
In our interview with Dan Haile Gebre, one of the survivors, we tried to depart from formats of witnessing normally associated with humanitarian organizations. Rather than placing the emphasis on the subjective dimension of his experience, we used various memory aids—such as photographs of naval and aerial assets that were present in the area at the time of the events—to assist him in recollecting precise elements that could support the reconstruction of the spatio-temporal coordinates of the event and the identification of the various vessels and aircraft encountered by the migrants while at sea.
Official NATO video shot inside the operations room of the Italian frigate Bettica as it sailed towards its patrol area, “near the border between Tunisia and Libya.” The video describes the ways in which the area north of Libya was divided into tightly controlled patrol sectors assigned to different NATO ships.
Official NATO video shot on board the Canadian ship Charlottestown. The video describes how the sensing capabilities of all naval and aerial assets were linked together in an attempt to “have a full picture of all vessels in the area.”
Summary of key events
1. The migrants’ vessel left the port of Tripoli between 00:00 and 02:00 GMT on 27 March 2011 with seventy-two migrants on board. At that time, as part of the military operations in Libya, NATO was enforcing an arms embargo in the central Mediterranean Sea, meaning that during that period it was the most highly surveilled section of sea in the entire world (see items 2A, B, and C).
2. At 14:55 GMT on 27 March, the boat was spotted by a French aircraft that transmitted its coordinates (point A) to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).
3. After proceeding in the direction of Lampedusa for fifteen to eighteen hours, the migrants placed a distress call by satellite phone. The vessel’s GPS location was determined at 16:52 GMT on 27 March 2011 (point B) by the satellite phone provider Thuraya. Shortly thereafter, the MRCC in Rome signaled the boat’s distress and position to all vessels in the area. It also alerted Malta MRCC and NATO HQ allied command in Naples.
4. The migrants’ vessel continued its course for approximately two hours before being flown over by a helicopter. As the satellite phone fell into the water shortly after this sighting, the last signal detected by Thuraya at 19:08 GMT on 27 March (point C) thus probably corresponds to the location of the helicopter sighting. Around the same position, the passengers approached several fishing boats but their requests for help went unheeded. They were then visited for a second time by a military helicopter that dropped just a few biscuits and water before leaving. Between 00:00 and 01:00 GMT the passengers resumed their course in a NNW direction towards Lampedusa.
5. At approximately 07:00 GMT on 28 March, after having probably entered the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) area (see items 13A and B), the vessel ran of fuel and began to drift SSW (point D).
6. The boat drifted SSW for seven to eight days before it encountered a military ship between 3 and 5 April (point E). Despite approaching them in circles and witnessing the distress of the passengers, the ship left without assisting them.
7. The boat continued to drift until April 10 when it landed southeast of Tripoli at Zlitan. Upon landing, eleven migrants were still alive; two died shortly thereafter.
Alerting the Coast Guard
Information about the migrants’ distress circulated through a complex assemblage of human feeds, electromagnetic signals, and various types of hardware. The initial call for help was made by the migrants themselves via a satellite phone, fifteen to eighteen hours after they had departed from Tripoli. The passengers called Father Zerai, an Eritrean priest based in Rome, who has received hundreds of distress calls from the Mediterranean over recent years. He informed the Italian coastguard, who, after obtaining the GPS location of the boat from the satellite phone provider Thuraya, informed their Maltese counterparts and NATO’s Naples Maritime HQ, as well as sending out two distress signals to all nearby ships. As such, all vessels in the area—civilian and military—should have been informed of the position and distress of the passengers.
According to the survivors, in the early hours of 28 March 2011 their vessel ran of fuel and began to drift aimlessly for the remainder of its trajectory. Where exactly did the boat begin its drift, and which course did it follow? These are questions that we addressed in collaboration with oceanographer Richard Limeburner (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), who is experienced in modelling the trajectory of objects in the open ocean. With his help, and by bringing the winds and currents to bear witness to the events, we were able to reconstruct a model of the entire trajectory of the boat during its fourteen days of deadly drift. While we conclude that the vessel briefly entered the Maltese search and rescue zone, for the majority of its trajectory it remained drifting slowly within the NATO maritime surveillance area.
Use of satellite imagery
In the production of the Forensic Oceanography report, satellite imagery was crucial in confirming the presence of a high number of ships in close proximity to the drifting migrants’ boat. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery is routinely collected over the Mediterranean Sea for various purposes, including the policing of illegalised migration. Using these media to document the crime of nonassistance of people in distress at sea thus involved a strategic repurposing of these images and the use of surveillance technologies “against the grain.” In this we exercised a “disobedient gaze,” one that refuses to disclose clandestine migration but seeks to unveil instead the violence of the border regime.
Optical and SAR satellites are only two among a vast array of sensing technologies—thermal cameras, sea-, air- and land-borne radars, vessel-tracking technologies, etc.—that scan and analyse the surface of the sea, turning certain physical conditions into digital data according to specific sets of protocols and determining the conditions of visibility of certain events, objects, or people. The constant emission and capture of different electromagnetic waves operated by these technologies confers a new material meaning on Fernand Braudel’s metaphor of the Mediterranean as an “electromagnetic field” in terms of its relation to the wider world. These technologies do not simply create a new representation of the sea, but rather constitute a new sea altogether, one that is simultaneously composed of matter and media.
While optical satellite imagery forms images of the Earth’s surface by detecting the solar radiation reflected from targets on the ground, SAR imaging uses an antenna to transmit microwave pulses towards the Earth’s surface. The microwave energy scattered back to the spacecraft is measured and an image is formed by utilising the time delay of the backscattered signals. Calm sea surfaces appear dark in SAR images, whereas ships reflect most of the radar energy back to the sensor, appearing as bright pixels against a uniform background.
AIS (Automatic Identification System) is a ship-borne transponder system that sends out a signal to coastal or satellite receivers, providing live information regarding the position of all registered vessels. While mandatory for large commercial ships, the carriage of AIS is not required for certain categories of ships such as warships. Forensic Oceanography analysed AIS data in conjunction with SAR imagery in the attempt to identify “negatively” the military ships in the vicinity of the “left-to-die boat”—by determining which large vessels were not accounted for by the AIS data. The inconsistency of AIS data for that period and area (probably due to an absence of recorded data along the Libyan coast) did not allow AIS data to be matched with satellite imagery targets but nevertheless provided an impressive snapshot of commercial maritime traffic though the Straight of Sicily.
Search and Rescue conventions
The 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) has divided the world’s oceans into different search and rescue areas, for each of which the countries concerned are responsible for assisting people in distress at sea. However, the elastic nature of international law has often been strategically mobilized by coastal states to avoid engaging in rescue missions. In the central Mediterranean Sea, in particular, the delimitation of SAR zones has a long and conflict-ridden history. Tunisia and Libya have refrained from defining the boundaries of their SAR zones, while Italy and Malta have overlapping SAR zones and are signatories to different versions of the SAR convention, a situation which has led to repeated standoffs and tragedies and certainly contributed to the events of the “left-to-die boat” case.
The ultimate destination of the report on the “left-to-die boat” has been a series of legal cases regarding nonassistance to people in distress at sea led by a coalition of NGOs*. Cases have been filed in France, Italy, Belgium, and Spain, while Freedom of Information requests have been submitted in Canada, the US, and the UK. These initiatives, as well as an investigation by the Council of Europe and by several journalists, have forced states and militaries concerned to release further data on the events. The reconstruction of facts in the Forensic Oceanography report has never been contested in these responses; however, the information provided so far remains vague and incomplete and has not allowed us to determine legal responsibility for the deaths of sixty-three people on board the “left-to-die boat.”
* The list of organizations belonging to this coalition includes: 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 immigrés (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), and Unione Forense per la Tutela dei Diritti Umani (UFTDU).
The map produced by Forensic Oceanography has been circulated widely in the international press, in activist circles, and in legal and political documents. Each time slightly modified, cropped, deformed, misspelled, and redrawn, it has allowed for the discussion around this case to occur across different arenas. In particular, it has for the first time given a specific form to the trajectory of the boat, thus allowing for the inscription of this event across the liquid surface and the contested jurisdictions of the sea.