April 18. 2024. 1:12

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Frontex warned Italy of possible ‘large number of people’ before shipwreck


The Italian authorities disregarded warnings from the EU border and coast agency Frontex, based on reconnaissance signals, that a ship which eventually sank off its coast might be carrying a large number of people, a source from Frontex told EURACTIV.

Despite the warning, based on the so-called “thermal response” from the ship, the Italian authorities mobilised a “law enforcement operation” instead of a search and rescue one.

The intercepted ship sank on Sunday morning (26 February) in Calabria, south of Italy, near the city of Crotone. More than 60 deaths were counted, including many children, and the number may further increase. The ship, which departed from Turkey, carried mainly families from Afghanistan, Syria.

The Italian Coast Guard declared in a press release on Tuesday (28 February) the vessel “appeared to be sailing regularly, at 6 knots and in good buoyancy conditions, with only one person visible on the deck of the ship”. There was no mention of the thermal response or the possible presence of migrants onboard.

The interception

Frontex confirmed to EURACTIV that they had intercepted the ship on the night of Saturday (25 February) with one of their planes.

The plane was monitoring the area, as “part of the operation Themis”, an operation started in February 2018 where Frontex supports Italy with border control, surveillance and search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean.

Frontex communicated to the Italian authorities “the location, course and speed of the ship, together with additional information”, such as the sea state, which was 4 out of 7, and the information coming from the plane’s camera.

The state of the sea refers to the so-called “Douglas sea scale” which determines the sea condition based on the height of the waves. In the 4 state, the sea is considered as “rough” because the waves rise up to 2.50 metres.

Frontex saw only one person on board according to the camera, but other elements, such as thermal camera recording, indicated the possibility of the presence of a large number of people.

“Our experts spotted some signs that the boat might be carrying a large number of people, for example, the thermal camera on board the plane detected a significant thermal response from the open hatches at the bow,” Frontex explained.

Frontex confirmed to EURACTIV that the Italian authorities had access to both the camera and the thermal response, which was “communicated in a report immediately”.

After Frontex’s communication, the Italian authorities sent two patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza (GDF) to intercept the ship, which had to return to port because of the rough weather and sea conditions, as they explained in a press release published on Monday).

GDF is the authority that conducts law enforcement operations, and not search and rescue and their patrol boats are not equipped for such operations as are those of the Italian Coast Guard.

In Monday’s press release, the GDF spoke about the spotting of a boat by Frontex “allegedly involved in migrant smuggling, about 40 miles off the Crotone coast”.

EURACTIV asked the Italian Coast Guard on Tuesday (28 February) which kind of information Frontex had communicated to them but did not receive an answer.

It said in the press release it had received reports at 4.30 am from people ashore concerning a boat in distress.

“This is the first emergency information received by the Coast Guard concerning the boat sighted by the Frontex aircraft,” the Coast Guard declared.