Tragedy of a Migrant Shipwreck in Italy: What New Investigation Reveals?
It was 3 a.m. when Omid, a 24-year-old migrant from Afghanistan, was approached by smugglers on an overcrowded wooden boat, Summer Love, in the middle of a stormy Mediterranean Sea to collect his belongings. Omid was stirred knowing that the destination was close, but little did he realize that the fateful journey to seek a better and safer life in Europe would turn into a disaster.
Omid’s moment of brief joy soon grew into panic and confusion when the vessel smashed into rocky reefs and was battered by storms. He hurried his parents to get on the boat roof to safety, but no luck. The waves had crashed into the boat and broken it apart. Hurling on the rough water with no sight of his parents, Omid managed to grab a wooden beam from the broken boat and made it safely to the shore after the boat was wrecked.
But many did not survive, including Omid’s parents.
On the early hours of February 26, the 20-meter-long Summer Love, densely packed with nearly 200 migrants—140 from Afghanistan and the rest from Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Somalia, and Palestine—wrecked off the southern coast of Steccato di Cutro, a seaside resort in Italy’s Crotone province. The shipwreck killed at least 94 people, including 31 children, a twin toddler among them. While 80 people were rescued despite hampered search efforts, most of them, like Omid, succeeded in reaching the shore. Dozens more were missing.
Following the deadly incident, the coffins of the victims, adorned with flowers, were laid out at an indoor sports hall in the Crotone where, in the days following the shipwreck, many of the victims’ families arrived for identification. The white coffins of child victims were placed with teddy bears and toys.
Wahid, Omid’s brother, drove from Germany to the sports hall to offer a last goodbye to his parents after eight years of separation. When he finally recognized his father’s corpse among many stretched the length of the hall, Wahid lamented, “It was a shock for me to see my father in that state. I am a nurse. I have seen many dead people but no one like that.”
Each migrant on the Summer Love was charged between $4,000 and $8,000. Six smugglers on board were reportedly involved: three Turkish nationals, one Syrian, and two Pakistanis. However, only four were detained by Italian authorities on suspected human trafficking charges.
Condemnation or “Hypocrisy”?
The May 26 incident was the deadliest shipwreck in Italian waters since 2013. In the aftermath of the shipwreck, a prominent Italian journalist said in La Stampa newspaper that a “gloomy, confused” picture has emerged of this terrible episode. At best, there were a series of misunderstandings, errors, and omissions; at worst, there was “bad faith.”
The tragedy of the shipwreck not only sparked widespread condemnation from rights activists, refugees, and political leaders across the world, but it also brought to the limelight the perilous migration route from Turkey to Italy and the tough European migration policies that have at least since 2015 shifted for the worse.
The far-right Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose governing allies include the anti-migrant League party, expressed her “deep sorrow for the many human lives torn away” and blamed human traffickers for the tragedy. “It’s inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women, and children for the price of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect of a safe voyage.”
However, opposition parties highlighted the tragedy as proof of the flaws in Italy’s migration policy which places strict restrictions on humanitarian groups’ ability to deploy boats to assist with search and rescue (SAR) efforts.
“Condemning only the smugglers, as the center-right is doing now, is hypocrisy,” Laura Ferrara, a European Parliament lawmaker from the populist 5-Star Movement, said. “The truth is that the EU today doesn’t offer effective alternatives for those who are forced to abandon their country of origin.”
Elena Stancanelli, a researcher, lured in the Italian La Repubblica newspaper that the far-right government of Meloni has done everything it can to deter migrants from reaching Italy. “It has passed a law to crack down on sea-rescue vessels operated by non-governmental organizations.”
Walter Hämmerle, an Austrian journalist, said in the Wiener Zeitung newspaper that there are no simple solutions to the migration crisis. However, he added that “a generous migration policy would prevent such journeys, but there are no “political majorities” for that in the EU. So EU states will carry on negotiating with the nations where the journeys start, where there is often no political will to cooperate. And when that fails, they will carry on “fighting the smugglers”.
Now three months after the February 26 shipwreck, a joint international investigation by several media outlets, including Domani, Sky News, Süddeutsche Zeitung, El Pais, Le Monde, and Lighthouse Reports has revealed faults in the Italian government’s rescue chain of command that first led to the shipwreck and then the cause of unfulfilling responsibilities of three involved authorities including the EU border agency Frontex, the Guardia di Finanza financial police, and the Italian Coastguard. The investigators have used a wide range of evidence, i.e., classified sources, satellite images, and dozens of testimonies from survivors to show how necessary danger signals were miscalculated and a SAR operation was not conducted by Italian Coastguards when lives could have been saved.
The Dangerous Journey and the Italian Response
The journey that ended for many in the early hours of February 26 had initially set out from Turkey’s Izmir city several days ago.
Before boarding the Summer Love, the migrants were on a white metal boat that had set out from the Turkish coast of Cesme to Italy on February 21. However, the boat was replaced by the Summer Love a few hours into their voyage due to engine failure. Summer Love, according to survivors’ testimonies, also had engine problems and was older and substandard than the previous one. Without life vests and seats, migrants were forced to hide below deck so as not to be detected, only briefly going out for fresh air.
On the evening of February 25, the surveillance aircraft of Frontex was called several times from the boat before Frontex spotted it heading toward the Italian coast while patrolling the Ionian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea. Frontex’s control center was reported two hours before detecting the boat’s problems in completing a “planned flight pattern due to strong winds”, signaling that Frontex was aware of the bad weather conditions that day.
Nearly an hour later, Frontex reported to Italian authorities about one person on the upper deck of the boat and possibly more below it who were spotted by thermal cameras.
Nevertheless, Frontex and the Italian authorities deflected blame onto each other.
“All the relevant Italian authorities were aware of the boat and also of the possibility that it was carrying migrants to the Italian coast,” said Frontex who added that it was the responsibility of the national authorities to coordinate SAR efforts.
However, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni stated, “No emergency communication from Frontex reached our authorities. We were not warned that this boat was in danger of sinking.” The Italian Coastguard also said in a statement on 28 February that the boat “appeared to be sailing regularly, at 6 knots and in good buoyancy conditions, with only one person visible on the deck of the ship”.
The Italian deputy prime minister and minister for transport Matteo Salvini also blamed Frontex for not indicating “imminent risks” to the government authorities; otherwise, Coastguards or navy “would have intervened.”
In response to the Frontex sighting, the case was classified as an “activity of the maritime police”.
An anonymous senior officer in the Italian Coastguard revealed that The Guardia di Finanza, which also has a border and customs role, made “mistakes in the valuation of the case” and the Summer Love was a probability of a shipwreck, meaning the Coastguards had to launch a SAR.
However, Guardia di Finanza dispatched two patrols to “intercept the vessel”, but they returned to the port of Crotone without intervening reportedly due to the adverse weather conditions.
The findings of the joint investigation show that both the Frontex and the Italian authorities were aware that the boat was showing signs of distress when the ship was first spotted a few hours before the wreck, but not only did they not intervene but also attempted to conceal how much they knew about those signs later.
The report concludes that although Summer Love’s overcrowdedness, a lack of life vests, and bad weather are considered signs of distress under the maritime rules of Frontex and the Italian government, the maritime authorities did not undertake a SAR operation that could prevent the death of more than 90 migrants.
“The wreck is Italy’s fault because they knew from the start that a boat had arrived,” accounted Nigeena Mamozai who lost her husband in the shipwreck, but survived herself. “Usually when they see an unfamiliar ship it’s their job to check it out. But they didn’t.”
Future of the Refugee and Migrant Crisis
The refugee and migrant crisis has been one of the most important and divisive issues in recent European politics without much of a strategic and holistic approach. With everything ongoing in the face of this crisis, it is unclear if the Eurppean countries, including the Italian government, will soften their refugee policies and, if they do, only time will tell how would it affect thousands of desperate refugees and migrants.
The majority of refugees and migrants arriving in the Mediterranean region of Europe land in Italy. The country has seen asharp uptick in migrant arrivals this year compared to last year despite efforts by Italy’s right-wing coalition government to crack down on irregular migration.
Despite the government’s call for a six-month state of emergency in response to a rise in migrant numbers, boats continue to pour in attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
UNHCR records show that 11,874 people primarily from conflict-ridden countries, including Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, have arrived in Italy by sea in 2023 so far, with the Central Mediterranean route regarded as the most deadly migration route which has perished more than 20,000 people since 2014.
Only in the first months of 2023, 441 deaths were recorded in the Central Mediterranean, either due to the Italian government’s delays in rescues or a complete lack of response.
The future of the refugee and migrant crisis in Italy and other EU countries seems bleak. But despite all odds, this crisis will likely continue as thousands of despairing people flee conflict, persecution, poverty, and whatnot in search of a better and safer life.
“People flee because they have to get away from these very difficult situations at home,” said Jenny Phillimore, a professor of migration at the University of Birmingham in central England. “Why are they taking these risks and getting into the boats? Because there are no safe and legal routes—they have no choice.”