STECCATO DI CUTRO, Italy (AP) — “Italy, here we come! exclaimed the youngsters in Urdu and Pashto as they filmed a video on a boat sailing through clear blue waters.
They were among about 180 migrants – Afghans, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians, Somalis and others – who had left Turkey hoping to find a better, or simply safer, life in Europe.
A few days later, dozens of them were dead. So far, 70 bodies have been recovered from the February 26 shipwreck near Steccato di Cutro, a small seaside town. But only 80 survivors have been found, suggesting the death toll is higher and the bodies of some victims were lost in the Ionian Sea.
The tragedy has drawn attention to Turkey’s lesser-known migration route to Italy. She also put on the table the toughening of European and Italian migration policies, which since 2015 have moved away from a search and rescue strategy to focus on border surveillance. The Italian government is now facing questions about why the coastguards were not sent in until it was too late.
Drawing on court documents, testimonies from survivors and family members, and official statements, AP has pieced together what is known about the events leading up to the sinking and the questions that remain unanswered.
In the early hours of Wednesday February 22, the migrants – including dozens of families with young children – boarded a pleasure boat at a beach near Izmir after arriving by truck from Istanbul and crossing a forest on foot.
They set off from the shore. But when they were barely three hours away, the ship’s engine failed. The replacement, an old traditional Turkish wooden boat, has arrived offshore.
The smugglers and their assistants told the migrants to hide under the bridge as they continued their journey west. Without seats or life jackets, they huddled on the ground, barely leaving to get some fresh air or relieve themselves. Survivors said the second boat also had engine trouble and had to stop several times.
Three days later, at 10:26 p.m. on Saturday February 25, a European Border and Coast Guard aircraft patrolling the Ionian Sea sighted a ship heading for the Italian coast. The agency, known as Frontex, said the vessel “showed no signs of trouble” and was sailing at 6 knots, with “good” buoyancy.
Frontex sent an email to the Italian authorities at 11.03 p.m. reporting a person on the upper deck and possibly other people inside, detected by thermal cameras. There were no life jackets in sight. The email also mentioned that a satellite phone call had been made from the ship to Turkey.
In response to Frontex’s observation, the case was classified as “maritime police activity”. Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, or financial police, which also handles border duties and customs, sent two patrol boats to “intercept the vessel”.
As the Turkish ship approached the Italian coast of Calabria on Saturday evening, some of the ship’s migrants were authorized to send messages to their relatives informing them of their imminent arrival and to release the payment of 8,000 euros agreed with the smugglers.
The men piloting the boat told nervous passengers they had to wait a few more hours to disembark to avoid being discovered, survivors told investigators.
At 03:48 on Saturday, February 26, the Financial Police boats returned to base without having reached the boat due to bad weather. Police contacted the Coast Guard to ask if they had any vessels at sea “in case there is a critical situation”, according to communications seen by Italian news agency ANSA and confirmed by AP. The Coast Guard said no. “Okay, that was just to let you know,” a policeman said before hanging up.
A few minutes later, around 4 a.m., local fishermen on the southern coast of Italy saw lights in the darkness. There were people desperately waving their cellphone flashlights from a wrecked ship on a sandbar.
The suspected smugglers grabbed black cylinders, possibly life jackets, and jumped into the water to save themselves, survivors said. The waves continued to hit the ship until it suddenly cracked open. It sounded like an explosion, survivors said. People fell into the freezing water trying to grab what they could. Many could not swim.
Italian police arrived at the scene at 4:30 a.m., when the coastguard says it received the first emergency calls related to the ship. The Coast Guard took another hour to arrive. By then the bodies were being pulled out of the water and people were screaming for help while others tried to revive the victims.
There were dozens of young children aboard the ship. Almost none survived. The body of a three-year-old boy was recovered on Saturday.
Among the survivors were a Syrian father and his eldest son, but his wife and three other children were killed. The body of the youngest, aged 5, was still missing four days later.
An Afghan man drove from Germany looking for his 15-year-old nephew, who had contacted his family to say he was in Italy. But the boy also died before setting foot on the ground.
The uncle asked that his name and that of his nephew not be published, as he had not yet informed the boy’s father.
The baby-faced teenager had shared a video with his family during the crossing, in what appeared to be fine weather.
Her mother had died two years earlier, and after the Taliban returned to power, the family fled to Iran. The boy continued his journey to Turkey and tried several times to enter the EU.
“Europe is the only place where you are at least respected as a human being,” he said. “Everyone knows it’s 100 per cent dangerous, but he’s risking his life because he knows if he’s successful he could live.”
The prosecution opened two investigations, one into the alleged smugglers and the other into the delays of the Italian authorities in their response to the event.
A Turk and two Pakistanis who are among the 80 survivors were arrested on suspicion of being smugglers or their accomplices. A fourth suspect is at large, a Turkish national.
One aspect that has received particular attention is why the Coast Guard was never sent to check on the vessel.
The day after the sinking, Frontex told the AP it saw a “very crowded” ship and reported it to Italian authorities. However, in a second statement, Frontex clarified that there was only one person visible on the bridge, although its thermal cameras “and other indications” indicated that more people could be at the bridge. inside.
In an interview with the AP, retired Coastguard Admiral Vittorio Alessandro said Coastguard ships are built to withstand rough seas and should have been out. “If not to rescue, at least to check if the ship needed help.”
Alessandro pointed out that the images published by Frontex indicated that the water level was high, which indicated that the ship was heavily loaded.
The coastguard said Frontex alerted “security” authorities and copied the coastguard only “to keep them informed”. Frontex indicated that the classification of incidents as search and rescue operations is the responsibility of national authorities.
“The case is simple in its tragic nature: no emergency communication from Frontex has reached our authorities. We were not alerted that this ship was in danger of sinking,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Saturday.
“I wonder if there is anyone in this country who really believes that the government deliberately left about 60 people to die, including several children,” he added.
Alessandro, however, pointed out that successive governments have gradually reduced the activities of the coastguards – which previously operated even in remote areas of international waters – in recent years.
“Sea rescue operations should not be replaced by police operations. The bailout must prevail,” he said.
In an interview with AP, Eugenio Ambrosi, chief of staff of the United Nations International Organization for Migration, stressed the need to establish a more proactive search and rescue strategy at European level.
“We can watch and discuss whether the (vessel) was sighted, not sighted, whether the authorities were alerted and did not respond,” he said. “But we wouldn’t be asking that question if there was a search and rescue mechanism in the Mediterranean.”
Brito reported from Barcelona, Spain. AP writers Trisha Thomas in Rome, Colleen Barry in Milan and Ahmad Seir in Amsterdam also contributed to this report.