In the early hours of December 13, two boats collided off the coast of Lanzarote: one belonged to the Spanish coastguard, the other was carrying 25 illegal immigrants from Morocco. One of the immigrants was found drowned, seven others are missing and presumed dead. The authorities claimed a mechanical failure prevented the coastguards’ boat from moving out of the way of the immigrants’ boat. But a surveillance video filmed from a hotel on the coastline has called the official version of events into question.
The authorities said the coastguards’ boat was heading towards the port of Arrecife on Lanzarote, the easternmost island in the Canaries, to dock and fix a mechanical problem. On its way, the crew spotted the immigrants’ boat and started to approach it. The captain of the immigrants’ boat abandoned his position to mingle with the passengers, perhaps in the hope of escaping prosecution for having driven a boat full of illegal immigrants. The captain-less vessel began heading in the direction of the coastguards, who claim the failure of their control instruments meant they could not prevent the immigrants’ boat hitting them. They say the collision was “inevitable”.
An EU-funded border surveillance camera located at a hotel on the coastline filmed the incident, which took place at around 2 a.m. The footage was leaked to the media, a Spanish radio station published it on its website, and it immediately attracted public criticism. At 30 seconds in, the footage appears to show the coastguards’ boat crossing the path of the immigrants’ boat, escaping collision. The coastguards’ boat then changes direction, and at 55 seconds appears to accelerate towards the immigrants’ boat. At 1 minute 37 seconds, the boats collide.
A spokesperson for the authorities wrote to El Pais newspaper arguing the footage did not call into dispute the official version of events. Human rights groups beg to differ. An investigation has been launched by Arrecife’s tribunal to determine exactly what happened.
According to the Andalusian Association for Human Rights, last year almost 7,000 people were arrested (150 more people than in 2011) and put in detention for trying to cross Spain’s southern border.
"The Spanish government must be transparent about what happened"
Carlos Arce is a member of the Andalusian Association for Human Rights, an organisation which is a civil society representative in the ongoing investigation.
The Spanish authorities say two factors caused the accident: the coastguards’ boat suffered a mechanical failure and the driver of the immigrants’ boat made a reckless manoeuvre. But in the video we can’t see any reckless manoeuvres. It looks like the boat stopped. From looking at the video, it can’t be concluded that the immigrants’ boat made the collision “inevitable”. In this respect, the official version of events is questionable.At the moment, we do not know if the coastguards’ boat suffered a mechanical failure and, if indeed it did, how this affected the boat’s behaviour. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the Spanish authorities must come up with some more explanations, in light of what this video shows. If the authorities state that the incident was not premeditated, it must exercise complete transparency and prove it.“It’s a big issue that those who were rescued, the only witnesses, were immediately expelled from the country”In addition, in a case like this one, it’s a big issue that the authorities decided to send the 17 immigrants who were rescued back to Morocco, given they are the accident’s key witnesses. They were ordered back two weeks after they arrived, which is particularly fast compared to the normal time it takes to send back illegal immigrants [Editor’s note: the maximum period of detention for illegal immigrants is 60 days]. They must be allowed back to Spain to testify in the investigation.This is a tragic story, but it’s one among many problems in Spain. Human rights organisations regularly condemn violations of immigrants’ rights, such as arbitrary identity checks, poor conditions in detention centres, expulsion of those without identity papers [Editor’s note: before their nationality has been established by the authorities], all of which amount to a violation of international law.Generally speaking, migrants need to be treated as humans. Dealing with the question only as a security issue is not the solution.