On Thursday, hundreds of refugees fleeing Libya were rescued by the Italian coast guard from a stranded boat some 90 miles off the coast of the island of Lampedusa. According to survivors, dozens of other refugees died on the boat, and their bodies were thrown into the sea. Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini has called for an investigation into reports that a NATO ship in the area failed to respond to an SOS to help the refugees on the stranded vessel.
The incident was noted by American news organizations, but in such a way as to minimize or cast doubt on its gravity. Thus, for instance, the Associated Press wrote, “Italian media, without citing sources, said some migrants told their Italian rescuers that the bodies of those who died were tossed overboard by survivors.” But the source for an initial report in Il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most widely read and influential daily, is clearly indicated to be the survivors themselves. In particular, the report refers to the testimony of four Moroccans who were rescued from the ship:
“We were three hundred, but about a hundred, above all women, did not make it and the men were forced to throw their bodies into the sea.” These are the dramatic words of one of the four rescued Moroccans hospitalized in a clinic in Lampedusa.
Prior to the start of the NATO bombing campaign against Libya, the country had been a magnet for migrant workers in the region, and the refugees fleeing Libya today largely consist of migrant workers and their families.
In the meanwhile, Andrea Ciocca of the NGO Doctors Without Borders has confirmed that “the testimony of numerous survivors” supports the account related in Il Corriere: namely that “the passengers on the boat were forced to throw many dozens of corpses into the sea,” as reported in the French daily Libération.
A short dispatch on the incident in the New York Times low-balls the number presumed dead as “at least 30” and states, moreover, that “no bodies have been found, according to the Italian Coast Guard.” In fact, the report in Il Corriere della Sera notes that one body was recovered from the stranded vessel itself. Moreover, according to Antonio Morano of the local coast guard in Lampedusa, the Italian rescuers spotted clothes floating in the water. He added that there might also have been corpses. Morano told Il Corriere that the Italians did not investigate further, however, since their priority was to get the survivors to land “as quickly as possible.”
The New York Times also daintily notes that the refugees were “fleeing violence in Libya.” What violence? Laura Boldrini of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is more explicit. Quoted in Libération, Boldrini notes, “Earlier, the migrants left Libya in small makeshift vessels. But in order to flee the bombardments, today they are ready to embark in large numbers on big ships that are in poor condition. If something happens, the number of victims is much larger.”
In other words, the refugees are fleeing the NATO bombing. Libération reports that all the ships carrying refugees from Libya to Lampedusa are embarking from areas under Libyan government control. According to Boldrini, since mid-March, at least 1,500 persons have died attempting to make the voyage.