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.