On Friday, the 16th of June 2017, the Libyan coastguard Col Massoud Abdalsamad received a long-distance phone call from an Italian coastguard official who told him that 10 migrant dinghies were in distress, many in Libyan territorial waters. This claim was made by a joint investigation by the Guardian, the Italian public broadcaster Rai News and the Domani newspaper.
“It’s a day off. It’s a holiday here. But I can try to help,” Abdalsamad told the official. “Perhaps we can be there tomorrow.”
Later that day, Abdalsamad claimed that his men had saved many of the stricken migrants. According to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), by the end of the weekend, 126 people had died.
In February of that year, Europe had ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya as part of a deal struck between Italy and Libya aimed at reducing migrant flows across the sea.
The conversation, recorded by prosecutors in Sicily investigating sea rescue charities for alleged complicity in people-smuggling, lays bare the indifference of individuals on the Libyan side to the plight of migrants and to international law.
It is one of several revelations from the transcripts of wiretaps on Libyan coastguard officials’ phones, contained in a leaked 30,000-page file produced by Italian prosecutors that has been seen by the Guardian.
According to the investigation, the Libyan authorities were either unwilling or incapable of looking after migrant boats at sea, even as Italy launched investigations into the role of nongovernmental organisation boats at sea that prevented Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) from carrying out private rescue operations.
Between the 22nd and 27th of March 2017, hundreds of people who had set off from Sabratha in Libya requested aid from the Italian maritime rescue coordination centre. The transcripts show that Italian officials attempted to contact Abdalsamad and at least two other officials a number of times, but often the “result was negative.” The Italian authorities eventually lost contact with the dinghies.
On the 29th of March the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed the deaths of 146 people, including children and many pregnant women.
On the 24th of May 2017, two boats that had left Libya carrying hundreds of people started taking in water and one capsized. The people on board contacted the Italian coastguard, which called Abdalsamad 55 times without receiving a reply. 33 people died, according to the UNHCR.
In a restricted 2018 report by Operation Sophia, the European mission to fight illegal immigration, officials wrote that “reporting by Libyan Coast Guard it is not yet at a consistently acceptable standard” and that “the lack of feedback provided by the Joint Operation Room continues to be an issue.” The report highlighted “a critical infrastructure situation (limited communication systems, power supply, telephones and personal computers)” and said the situation was “further adversely conditioned by a limited presence of personnel with insufficient language (English) skills.”
For years Libyan authorities have been accused of intercepting dinghies and returning people to detention centres in Libya, where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse.
Riccardo Gatti, the Head of mission for the Spanish NGO rescue boat Proactiva Open Arms, said it was “almost always impossible” to contact the Libyans, and that phone numbers often don’t work or are non-existent.
Francesco Creazzo, a spokesperson for the NGO rescue boat SOS Méditerranée, said Libyan authorities were “mostly unresponsive, regardless of the day of the week”.
“The delays in communication at sea and the lack of capacity to coordinate from the Libyan JRCC [joint rescue coordination centre] further endangers people’s lives and has an unacceptable human cost,” said Ellen van der Velden, Médecins sans Frontiéres (MSF) Search and Rescue Operations Manager.