The captain of a migrant vessel that capsized late on Saturday night has been charged with mass homicide and causing a shipwreck for his part in the deaths of several hundred people who drowned in the Mediterranean.
Tunisian national Mohammed Ali Malek was in charge of a 20m fishing trawler that left the Libyan port of Tripoli on Saturday morning. About 850 men, women and children from Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Syria were on board.
In response to a distress call, Portuguese International-flagged geared container ship King Jacob approached the migrant boat. Captain Malek reportedly made several navigational errors that led to the trawler hitting the side of the 9,528gt merchant vessel at about 22.00. The grossly overloaded boat capsized almost immediately, resulting in the deaths of all but 28 of the passengers and crew. Survivors said that the majority of the migrants were locked in the hold, from which they were unable to escape. Only 24 bodies were recovered.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian town of Catania also charged Syrian crew member Mahmud Bikhit with ‘favouring illegal immigration’. They absolved the master and crew of King Jacob of any blame in the incident. Malek and Bikhit are due in court on Friday.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said today that it believed that more than 800 people lost their lives in Saturday night’s incident, making it the worst maritime disaster of its kind in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, the Greek authorities plan to prosecute two Syrian crew members of a migrant boat that ran aground on Monday on the island of Rhodes. The wooden vessel was carrying 90 migrants, three of whom were killed when it began to break up.
In the Sicilian town of Palermo, police arrested 14 men suspected of people smuggling. Italian police are also seeking two Libya-based smugglers, Ethiopian national Ermias Ghermay – who is alleged to have organised a voyage that ended in the loss of 366 lives off Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 and Medhane Yehdego Redae, an Eritrean. According to Italian paper Leggo, they are considered among the most important operators on the Libya Italy smuggling route.
As EU ministers prepare for a summit on migration on Thursday, the attitude of the UK government continues to cause international concern. Prime minister David Cameron appeared to rule out significant British help for enhanced search and rescue operations – its sole contribution to date is the loan to Operation Triton of five immigration officers. Instead, Cameron said that efforts should be concentrated on arresting smugglers. However, most smuggling gangs operate from parts of Libya controlled by Islamist forces that EU agencies do not recognise or talk to. The country has no effective border control or police force, and no EU state has a diplomatic mission in Libya. The UK maintains that maritime security in the Mediterranean is the sole responsibility of the littoral states.
UNHCR spokesperson Carlotta Sami said that Saturday’s intervention by King Jacob was the box ship’s fifth rescue mission. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) merchant ships rescued 40,000 people in the Mediterranean last year. However, Italian prosecutor Giovanni Salvi pointed out: “Merchant ships don’t have adequate training for rescues in the seas. Sea rescues are difficult and require professionalism.”
The Italian Coast Guard on Monday rescued 638 people from the Mediterranean, and today a further 446 were taken from a leaking vessel near the southern Italian coast. Also on Monday, the Turkish Coast Guard rescued 30 Syrians whose boat had started to sink en route from the Turkish town of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. The Turkish authorities are trying to identify the boat’s captain, after survivors said that the smugglers had forced some migrants to jump into the sea.
The IOM estimates that 1,776 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since January and its spokesman, Joel Millman, warned that up to 30,000 could lose their lives this year.