Twenty-nine calls from BuzzFeed News to a variety of numbers meant to summon the Libyan coast guard to help for drowning refugees in the Mediterranean went completely unanswered.
Four years after the refugee crisis first brought the horrors of the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to the world’s attention, hundreds of people continue to die each year hoping to reach Europe’s shores.
Over the course of 2016, the European Union determined that the coast guard in Libya, from whose shores many refugee boats set off, would to be the first call for groups undertaking rescue missions in hopes of saving the lives of those adrift at sea. Since last June, the main international body that issues guidelines on rescues at sea has agreed — Libya has the lead in the Mediterranean.
A BuzzFeed News investigation has found that five different phone numbers provided by Libyan officials as contact numbers for search and rescue missions are barely functioning, and when they do, the staffers manning the phones are unable to speak English, in violation of international law.
A reporter from BuzzFeed News tried to reach these five numbers on three different days and at six different times in a total of 30 contact attempts. Of those, 29 failed because the call was not answered. Among the numbers where no one could be reached were the two numbers listed in the international database for emergencies at sea — the UN International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Search and Rescue database. The IMO entry says that the Libyans should be available 24 hours a day.
The failure to adequately man the phones can have dire consequences. In 2016, at the peak of the crisis, more than 3,800 people are estimated to have died when attempting to make the crossing into Europe. According to the UN, the route between Libya and Italy was the most deadly, with one death for every 47 arrivals. That number has fallen but still remains high: 2,262 people were estimated to have died on the voyage last year.
In response to the surge in migrants and asylum-seekers, the European Union opted in 2016 to divert money and personnel from its own rescue missions to the Libyan coast guard, hoping to discourage migrants and asylum-seekers from making the trek in the first place. The program has been renewed several times since then, most recently in the form of a pledge of $52 million this January to pay for maritime surveillance equipment.
The UN database also lists a Gmail address as an official contact for the Tripoli mission. There are three further email addresses available that BuzzFeed News was able to locate, which are supposed to represent official contacts to the Libyan coast guard. One is a second Gmail account; the other is an address that belongs to the Italian Navy. None of the addresses contacted responded to BuzzFeed News requests for comment.
Other organizations have had little better luck contacting Tripoli. Sea-Watch, an NGO that provides search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, has also provided BuzzFeed News radio recordings of several attempts on different days to reach the Libyan coast guard.
Sea-Watch also provided a list of recorded attempts to reach the Libyan coast guard from the bridge of the Sea-Watch 3, one of their rescue ships. The list of 15 calls show 10 failed contact attempts — in five other cases, the Libyan side simply hung up.
Ruben Neugebauer, a crew member who also acts as spokesperson for Sea-Watch, told BuzzFeed News that the situation had become the new normal.
“The accessibility of the JRCC Tripoli is more than poor, it happens again and again that the control center is not accessible at all,” he said, using the Libyan mission’s official name. “If it can be reached, often only the local Arabic dialect is spoken.”
Under the terms of the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, which Libya has signed, all rescue coordination centers must be staffed around the clock and include staffers who speak English.
Neugebauer recalled one case where a person on the Libyan end of the call could not communicate in English, French, or Egyptian Arabic: “Even though it was an emergency, the JRCC Tripoli employee simply hung up before we were able to share the most necessary information.”
The operator’s lack of English language skills can also jeopardize the rescuers. Last November, a Libyan patrol boat intervened aggressively in an ongoing rescue mission. Five people died as a result.
The Aquarius, a ship jointly operated by NGOs Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, has noted in its public logbook almost 30 unsuccessful attempts to reach the Libyans during missions since June 2018 alone. Nine unsuccessful attempts to reach Libyan units on the radio channel reserved for emergency calls are also listed in the logbook.
“For us, the JRCC Tripoli has never been reachable by phone so far,” Axel Steier, founder and chair of the NGO Mission Lifeline, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Emails are answered after days.” BuzzFeed News asked Steier to estimate how often the Libyan authorities were available in cases of distress at sea in which Mission Lifeline’s rescue vessel was involved. His answer: “Zero percent.”
Ina Fisher, a spokesperson for Alarm Phone, another NGO focused on rescues, told BuzzFeed News that in only two cases did phone calls placed to numbers meant to belong to the Libyan coast guard actually get answered. One number turned out to belong not to the coast guard but a retired general, she said. In the other call, the voice on the other end of the line said they could not help but did ask if they’d managed to save the boat in question.
“We regularly send complaints to MRCC Rome about the JRCC’s inaccessibility, but again and again get the answer that the JRCC is working well,” Fisher said.
“According to our experience, in case of SAR events involving our assets, the communication with the relevant MRCC, including the Libyan one, has been satisfactory,” Antonello de Renzis Sonnino, a captain in the Italian Navy and spokesperson for Operation Sophia, the EU’s international rescue mission, said in response to a BuzzFeed News request for comment.
Last year, Italian and Maltese ports began refusing ships with refugees on board permission to enter their harbors, leaving ships to wait for days with refugees on board on the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, civilian sea rescuers have given up on contacting the rescue coordination center based in Rome and switched over to contacting the German Maritime Search and Rescue Association during emergencies in the Mediterranean, hoping to enlist them to contact the Libyans. The Germans, based out of the city of Bremen, are responsible for maritime search and rescue operations in the North and Baltic seas.
Even they don’t always manage to reach the Libyan coast guard. Christian Stipeldey, the German rescue association’s press officer, confirmed to BuzzFeed News: “In January 2019 we tried to reach Tripoli by telephone in one case. The connection was not established.” The mission in Rome “was already aware of this case,” Stipeldey said.
A spokesperson for the International Maritime Organization told BuzzFeed News that they were not in a position to comment on the reporting gathered for this article, adding that the IMO has no mandate to investigate the accessibility and reliability of regional command centers. A member state of the IMO could make such a request, however.
The German Federal Ministry of Transport is considering putting the work of the Libyan coast guard on the agenda at the next meeting of the IMO’s subcommittee responsible for sea rescues, the ministry confirmed to BuzzFeed News. The ministry also said that in talks with Libyan representatives, it has regularly demanded that the protection of refugees in sea rescue be guaranteed.
“You must appreciate that not every State can execute this function properly, especially if it has been under turmoil, like Libya,” George Theocharidis, a professor of maritime law and policy at World Maritime University in Sweden, told BuzzFeed News. “On the other hand, as every State has sovereignty, it is not possible to enforce those duties and it is left to the goodwill of States to perform what is required from them,” he added, noting that even the IMO can’t force a country to comply with the standards.
BuzzFeed News has also asked the European External Action Service, the responsible EU commissioner, for comment on the Libyans’ inaccessibility. It has not provided a response at this time.
Despite widespread knowledge of the problem, the confusion has not improved in recent months. A screenshot of an internal Sea-Watch chat provided to BuzzFeed News shows one crew member attempting to get in touch with the Libyans as recently as March 15. They were subsequently provided with a new phone number and instructed to speak very slowly.
When someone actually answered the phone, the chat reads, “it was a Russian-sounding man replying, saying in English that he didn’t speak English, only Russian.
“To my question, if anyone there spoke English, he replied, ‘Afternoon, English!’”