On 15 September, 2014, more than 400 asylum seekers from the Gaza Strip, Syria, Egypt and Sudan were drowned in international waters on their way to Italy through the deliberate acts of unscrupulous smugglers who had promised safe passage in return for exorbitant fees.
Euromid Observer for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in Geneva and the Gaza Strip, conducted the first investigation of the incident and the events that led up to and followed the mass killing. The organization concludes, among other recommendations, that a comprehensive and coordinated investigation must be launched by the relevant governments, including Egypt, the origin for the ill-fated trip; Malta, whose navy was involved in the emergency follow-up to the catastrophe; and Italy, the refugees’ hoped-for destination.
Euro-Mid also concludes that a more humane approach must be developed to address the growing number of refugees, particularly from the Palestinian territories and Syria. Palestinians fleeing the Gaza Strip, which experienced widespread destruction during the recent 50-day assault by Israel, represented the largest contingent among the ill-fated immigrants on board.
Smuggler recruitment of passengers
According to survivors and family members, travel agencies in different locations -- including offices in Egypt and "intermediaries" in Gaza -- recruited the passengers. Travellers were promised a safe journey to Europe on a secure and comfortable ship. Recruits in Gaza paid US$2,000-$4,000 per person, reportedly based on assurances from persons who claimed to have previously used the smugglers’ services.
To raise the necessary funds – a large amount for most people in Gaza, where the poverty rate rose to 90 per cent after the war – passengers reportedly sold personal property, borrowed from relatives and (in some cases) used the money they received from aid agencies to rebuild their demolished homes.
The passengers were instructed to meet in the city of Damietta, Egypt. Some already were in the country, while others from Gaza were arrived through the Rafah crossing by claiming a need for medical treatment or to attend school. Those Palestinians who could not get legal permission to cross paid another US$1,500 to go through the few tunnels that have not been destroyed by the Egyptians.
When the announced time came on Saturday evening, 6 September, an estimated 400-450 passengers (including about 100 children) were transferred by bus to the coast, where small motorboats pushed off at 22:00 (10 p.m.) to take them to a larger ship.
The large ship set sail at 23:15 (11:15 p.m.) on Saturday, 6 September. After two hours, the passengers were ordered to move to another boat. On Monday evening, 8 September, they were moved for a third time to another boat and resumed the trip to Italy.
It was at this time that the water pump stopped functioning and food supplies began to run out. Children were given priority. On the afternoon of Wednesday, 10 September, the smugglers ordered the passengers to move to yet another boat. However, this time the passegers refused. The size of the new boat was just16-18 metres in length – too small, they believed, to accommodate them all safely. An argument ensued.
Less than an hour later, another small boat suddenly appeared with the name of Al-Hajj Rizk – Damietta. Five to 10 men were on board, and they yelled at the passengers with an Egyptian accent. The small boat then began to deliberately ram the passengers’ ship, despite their screams and waving. The side of the ship ruptured, allowing in seawater, which mixed with oil and fuel.
The men waited to make sure the refugees’ ship was sinking, laughing as they watched, then left. The Maltese Navy confirmed that the ship was in international waters at the time, about 300 nautical miles (555 km) southeast of Malta.
Search and rescue
Most of the passengers drowned relatively quickly. However, an estimated100-150 clung to the boat edges, planks floating on the surface of the sea or even the corpses of their fellow travellers. Severe winds led to cold and thirst. Slowly, they began to die off.
Some of the survivors formed a group of about 50 people, making a sort of human chain. On the third day, however, high waves and winds began to break them up.
At the end of the fourth day, a plane flew over and fired black smoke bombs, then left without any further action. About an hour later, a cargo ship believed to be a Greek vessel with a Filipino crew came by. The crew rescued two of the floating survivors, who asked them to search for others.
The cargo ship searched for an hour, finding a total of five more people alive. A helicopter then was summoned, which transported the group of seven to the city of Akane on the Greek island of Crete. One of the seven was a nine-month-old child, and she died a short while later. The six remaining survivors included two Syrian girls, age 2 and 19; an Egyptian who claimed that his name was Hossam Mohammed but was later found to have another name; and three Palestinians named Abdul Majeed Nayef Al Hela, Muhammad Hisham Radi and Shukri Assouli.
Shukri Assouli told this story: “I was with about 50 survivors, and we stayed with each other hoping that rescue teams would come. Night and day passed while we were in the sea. At night the water was very cold and during the day the sun burned our skins. Our numbers were decreasing, and a friend of mine held onto a corpse because he didn’t know how to swim.” When they saw the “giant ship” with the Filipino crew, “we swam toward it calling ‘help, help.’”
Elsewhere, a Panamanian cargo ship rescued two other Palestinians: Khamees Beraikh and Shadi Al Jabri, who later were transferred to Italy. They now are staying in the city of Comiso in Sicily, where Italian authorities are holding them as witnesses. Euro-Mid interviewed a young Egyptian man who was on board the Panamanian cargo ship and confirmed the story told by the two Palestinians. He reported seeing dozens of bodies floating on the water.
A French merchant ship rescued three other Palestinians, who had spent five days at sea waiting to be rescued: Ma’moun Dughmosh and the brothers Mohammed and Ibrahim Awadallah. They now are staying at the Safi Center in Malta.
In all, eight Palestinians survived the sinking of the migrant ship. Two are currently staying in Italy, three in Malta and three in Greece.
The other three survivors, who are currently in Greece, are one Egyptian and two Syrians (a 19-year-old female and a child).
There is no hope of finding other survivors.
The Maltese authorities confirmed that they have searched all the coasts in addition to conducting a search of the sea. No one was found, except for two bodies now in a Malta hospital. There was no attempt to coordinate efforts with other countries to search in international waters.
Dozens of bodies were seen floating in the sea during the first few days after the sinking of the ship. An appeal was submitted to the Greek and Italian authorities, asking for their help in retrieving the bodies of the victims, but no assistance has been forthcoming as of yet.
Euro-Mid investigated a similar incident in October of 2013, when the bodies of 200 Palestinians and Syrians needed to be found. Italian and Maltese authorities also failed to assist in that incident.
There is fear that some European authorities knew about the catastrophe and took no action in order to avoid accepting new immigrants.
The chief prosecutor in Catania, Italy, Giovanni Salvi, reports that Italy has opened an investigation into the incident, with cooperation from Egypt, Greece and Malta. He agrees that the crime "carries exceptional gravity” and insists that Italy is making significant progress in the investigation.
The International Organization for Migration called the tragedy "the largest sinking in recent years. It is not an accident but a mass murder, a crime executed by criminals who have no respect for human life.”
Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights calls for:
- A comprehensive investigation into the smugglers who defrauded and lured the migrants into the dangerous venture with false promises, then left them to die. The governments of Egypt, Italy and Malta must cooperate with each other to identify those responsible and bring them to justice.
- Immediate assistance from the European Union to recover the bodies of the dead, in respect of the right of families to know the fate of their loved ones.
- A coordinated effort to investigate and prevent all human traffickers, as well as to launch rescue operations when needed. Preserving human life should be top priority.
- A concerted effort by countries surrounding conflict zones, especially in Palestine and Syria, to improve the plight of refugees by adhering to international laws governming human rights. Persecution, detention and forced removal are not acceptable.
- Modification of the new regulations governing “Frontex” (European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union), thus broadening the concept of hardship and allowing rapid intervention and rescue.
- Acceptance by the international community, particularly the wealthier countries, of a responsibility to address the needs of the growing number of refugees in the world.