Hundreds of Syrians drowned after Italian navy ignored SOS

Hundreds of Syrians drowned after Italian navy ignored SOS
'Call Malta': Leaked audio reveals coastguard operators in Rome ignoring pleas for help from Syrian refugees aboard a sinking vessel, despite a navy vessel being nearby.
3 min read
09 May, 2017
File photo: Italy has led refugee rescue efforts, saving 500 lives in this 2016 operation[Anadolu]
Italian coastguards repeatedly ignored desperate pleas to rescue hundreds of refugees trapped on a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, despite a navy vessel being just a few miles away, an Italian magazine has claimed.

When the boat eventually capsized, 250 people drowned. As many as 60 children were among the dead.

The recordings, which date from the night of the tragedy in October 2013, appear to reveal Italian operators ignoring numerous distress calls from a Syrian doctor named Mohammed Jammo asking for assistance as their boat began to sink close to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The operators tell the doctor to call the Maltese authorities for help - despite an Italian rescue vessel being in the area, L'Espresso reported.

The Italian naval ship was eventually sent to rescue the refugees five hours after the distress calls were made and after numerous requests for help from the Maltese armed forces.

It was too late for dozens of children and their parents who perished beneath the waves.


The ten-minute recording has shocked Italy, whose navy has played a frontline role in rescuing thousands of refugees who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

In the calls, Dr Jammo pleads frantically with the operator for help, telling them around 300 people were aboard the sinking ship, including around 200 women and children.

The Syrian doctor tells the first operator the location of the ship and that they need help immediately.

Translation: "What happened in the Mediterranean
11 October 2013 when 268 migrants died?

A second request is made to the coastguard, to another operator, who casually tells the doctor to call Maltese authorities.

"You are near Malta, you are near Malta," he says. "Please, please go, call Malta directly, very quickly, and they are there, they are close."

The man makes a third distress call to another operator, saying that Maltese authorities are unable to help.

"We are dying, please help," he says, his voice pitched in distress, saying the captain of the boat had escaped and there was nobody to pilot the vessel.

"Call Malta, call Malta," she curtly tells him. "You are speaking to Italia, Italia, but you are in Maltese area."

A Maltese operator then speaks with the coastguard in Rome, asking them to deploy the nearby Italian navy vessel to the location.

After some confusion about the ship's code, the Maltese coastguard tells the Italians that a plane above the location had confirmed their ship was the closest vessel to the sinking boat.
Similar tragedies have led to the deaths of thousands
of children and adult refugees [AFP]

"It is the closest one, do you understand, [your] boat," the Maltese operator says. "We have also asked a civilian ship to go to it, but it's 70 nautical miles away."

Maltese requests

With the Italian team appearing unwilling or unable to help, the Maltese duty officer again calls Rome, telling them their aircraft had spotted the refugee boat capsizing and that people were now in the water.

"Of the boat! The one I have been telling you about," she says, again asking the Italian vessel to head to the location.

Despite repeated urgent pleas from refugees and the Maltese armed forces, the Italian naval vessel Libra held its position for five hours despite being between 10 and 19 nautical miles away.

L'Espresso named the tragedy "The Children's Shipwreck" due to the high death toll among minors.

Another 212 passengers were rescued when Italian and Maltese rescue teams finally reached the vessel, the Italian report said.

The weekly Italian magazine used the recordings and footage to reconstruct the incident.

Reports at the time said 34 bodies were retrieved and 206 migrants were rescued.

An incident on 3 October 2013 off Lampedusa shocked Italy when more than 360 people drowned in a similar accident. 

The Italian coastguard has not yet responded to requests for comment.