Italian diplomat in KSA doubts claim coast guard ignored Syrian refugee boat’s SOS

A Red Cross volunteer carries a baby wrapped in a blanket after migrants disembarked at the Sicilian Porto Empedocle harbour. (AP)
Updated 10 May 2017

Italian diplomat in KSA doubts claim coast guard ignored Syrian refugee boat’s SOS

JEDDAH: The Italian ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday said he doubted the veracity of an audiotape that alleges Italy refused to rescue 268 Syrian refugees who drowned when their boat capsized.

The refugees, including 60 children, lost their lives 60 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea.

The leaked audiotape, which dates to Oct. 10, 2013, when the boat sank, was published by the Italian magazine L’Espresso. The tape suggests the Italian authorities allowed the Syrian refugees to drown, despite phone calls from one passenger pleading to be rescued.

“I don’t know what the audiotape has, but what I can tell you is that Italy, today, is the country that has accepted the most refugees in the world,” Italian Ambassador Luca Ferrari told Arab News. “Just last year, we took in 150,000 refugees.”

The Italian Coast Guard is the major naval force in the Mediterranean Sea that saves human lives, according to Ferrari.

The boat was carrying at least 480 people who sailed from Zuwarah, in northwestern Libya, and was heading to Lampedusa, a small island between Sicily and Tunisia.

According to the magazine, the boat capsized, sending the passengers into the water.

“When you save hundreds of thousands of lives, you can miss some of them, yes,” said the Italian ambassador. “I don’t know if we missed it, I can’t tell you what happened in 2013. I doubt that if there was a ship with refugees that asked to come to Italy we would have ignored it.”

Ferrari suggested that what he called “fake news” is circulating against the Italian authorities after an Italian magistrate had recently opened an inquiry into a group of NGOs that are allegedly colluding with human traffickers to smuggle refugees into the country.

“There is a suspicion that certain NGOs are in direct contact with traffickers who put refugees into the sea, so that they save them right away,” Ferrari said while describing the act as “the most recent form of human slavery.”

If one may connect the dots, he said, there is a connection between these recent events. “It is strange that just when the Italian magistrate opened the inquiry, this type of news comes out three years later,” said Ferrari.

Ferrari asserted that the policy of Italy is to accept refugees wherever they come from.

“We are among the European countries that take in most refugees, we are the ones who saved the most, and we are the ones who give the most asylum,” he added.

Italy has kept thousands of refugees who have been on its borders and failed to cross into Austria, Switzerland and France after they were not allowed in. “We took them in, gave them jobs and we are doing our best.” The number of refugees would reach 200,000 in Italy this year, he said.

The average number of refugees taken by the Italian authorities per year since 2012 is about 100,000. “As you may probably know, there are two European gates for Syrians — one is through Greece, and that was closed, and one is through Italy that is still open actually and it has always been.”

The leaked audiotape recorded several phone calls between a Syrian doctor who was a passenger on the boat at the time, named Mahamed Jammo, and the Italian Coast Guard pleading for help. “Please hurry, the boat is going down,” the man is heard saying.

The repeated distress calls were received by two Italian operators who reportedly urged Jammo to call Malta instead, claiming the boat is closer to the Maltese territorial waters. However, Jammo, who called Malta, was told that the boat was closer to Lampesuda than Malta — 61 nautical miles from Lampesuda and 118 nautical miles from Malta.

According to L’Espresso, the Italian Navy’s patrol boat, Libra, was awaiting orders between 10 to 19 nautical miles away.

Saudi tourism megaproject aims to turn the Red Sea green

Updated 22 min 49 sec ago

Saudi tourism megaproject aims to turn the Red Sea green

  • Development will protect endangered hawksbill turtle, while coral research could help save the Great Barrier Reef

RIYADH: Key ecological targets are driving Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea tourism megaproject, its leader has told Arab News.

The development will not only protect the habitat of the endangered hawksbill turtle, but could also save coral reefs that are dying elsewhere in the world, said Red Sea Development Company Chief Executive John Pagano.

The project is taking shape in a 28,000 square kilometer region of lagoons, archipelagos, canyons and volcanic geology between the small towns of Al-Wajh and Umluj on the Kingdom’s west coast.

One island, Al-Waqqadi, looked like the perfect tourism destination, but was discovered to be a breeding ground for the hawksbill. “In the end, we said we’re not going to develop it. It shows you can balance development and conservation,” Pagano said.

Scientists are also working to explain why the area’s coral reef system — fourth-largest in the world —  is thriving when others around the world are endangered.

“To the extent we solve that mystery, the ambition would be to export that to the rest of the world,” Pagano said. “Can we help save the Great Barrier Reef or the Caribbean coral that has been severely damaged?”


ALSO READ: INTERVIEW: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project to set ‘new global standards in sustainability’, says CEO