“When the boat sank, I could not find my friends. I was asking: where are they? Then I found Omar, but another friend was nowhere to be found. I tried to help others, but could not. Omar and I helped each other, but it was difficult to swim for hours. In the water, everyone was looking for family and friends.”
Mohammed, 21, a Syrian refugee, described to us the dramatic experience he endured on 11 October 2013, when the boat he was on with some 400 other people, sank 70 miles off Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean.
Around 200 people were rescued and 27 bodies were retrieved from the sea but the real number of those who lost their lives can only be guessed.
We are currently in Malta, trying to find out exactly what happened that day and whether more could have been done to rescue the children, women and men who were travelling with Mohammed.
Many questions remain unanswered: did Maltese and Italian authorities react promptly enough? Was there a misjudgement of the gravity of the situation when the first request for help from the boat reached the authorities? Were all available resources employed for the rescue?
We will continue to ask these questions and call for full accountability for what happened.
It is harrowing to hear Mohammed talk about that day. The trauma is still so fresh in his mind – particularly as news reached us of another tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa just days ago.
The 206 survivors rescued by commercial vessels and the Italian navy are arriving in Italy as we write, together with the 17 bodies retrieved from the sea. There are reportedly some 200 people still missing.
No doubt we will hear more distressing testimonies, such as that of Mohammed’s, from those who survived.
Many European politicians and representatives of the EU are expressing shock and sadness about this latest shipwreck off Lampedusa. Just as they did after the shipwreck in which Mohammed and Omar almost lost their lives and other fellow travellers lost their children, spouses, brothers and sisters. But will there be concrete action to change this surreal situation where ordinary people, desperate to escape bloody wars and persecution, need to risk their lives to exercise the fundamental human right to claim asylum?
The 11 October 2013 shipwreck represented a turning point for Italy, which started Operation Mare Nostrum and massively increased resources for rescue at sea. It has achieved results: tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been rescued and brought to Italy since 18 October, when the operation started. It shows that if there is political will, there is a solution.
However, while lives have been saved in their thousands by the Italian navy, other European states and the EU need to join in to ensure no more are lost.
As EU Ministers gather in Brussels on 5 and 6 June to discuss migration policies, any suggestion of scaling down the operation, if not to end it altogether, would be unconscionable, leading to more tragedies at sea. Instead, strengthening resources for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean must be a top priority.
Heads of State and governments – and all those in power – must ensure that Europe puts the rights of migrants and asylum seekers at the heart of migration policies. They have to decide whether to extend a helping hand to those risking their lives to reach European shores – or sit idly by while hundreds more die at sea.