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Letter sent on Jan 26, 2016

We’re Starting To Narrow Down The Ghost Boat Search Area

Bit by bit, the area we’re looking at is getting smaller.

Our most recent update outlined how we might use satellite photography to try to find what happened to the Ghost Boat. We’ve been talking with Tomnod, a company that operates its own satellites and has an archive of photographs that we will be able to access.

Now that this is falling into place, the next major question is: Where do we look? It’s time to start defining our search area.

At its maximum, our search area stretches about 195km (121mi) along the Libyan coast from Tajoura, just east of Tripoli, to the Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia in the west.

Tajoura is where the Libyan Red Crescent helped recover bodies that washed ashore on the 7–11 July 2014, according to its annual report. And, Ras Ajdir lies just to the west of Zuwarah, Libya’s main smuggling hub and a place that we know was one of the departure locations used by Jamal Al-Saudi’s gang.

We also know that Libya’s territorial waters extend 22.2km (12 nautical miles) from the coast. This is the international standard establishing by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

These waters are considered sovereign state territory. To enter Libyan waters, boats need permission from Libyan authorities. We learned in an interview earlier this week with Martin Xuereb, director of the search and rescue organization MOAS, that search and rescue vessels do not enter Libyan territorial waters to perform rescues. (We’re just transcribing that interview: We’ll share it tomorrow.)

Also, in follow-up conversations with the Italian Navy after our episode on Mare Nostrum we have been told that Italian satellite surveillance of the Mediterranean stops where Libya’s territorial waters begin.

Libya itself is teetering on the point of collapse. Its coastguard is poorly equipped. And, while it does perform rescues at sea, it has neither the resources nor a specialized mission to cover its territorial waters with any kind of sufficiency — particularly considering the vast numbers of people leaving Libyan shores.

All of this combines to make that strip of water off the Libyan coast a veritable black hole. “We don’t really know how many people perish in that initial part of the journey,” Xuereb said.

So, we’re focusing our search for evidence on the strip of territorial water stretching from Tajoura in the east to Ras Ajdir in the west. We hope to graft more reporting about potential departure locations and hydrology onto this basic information to further narrow down our search area.

For now, having defined an initial area to look for evidence feels like a big step forward.

This Just In

In Libya, Mohamed has spoken to a senior official in the Tripoli-based administration dealing with deportation of refugees and migrants. It’s a sobering read: He explains how refugees who cannot be deported have largely escaped the detention centers they’ve been sent to—and how large areas of the country are more or less out of control.

When I was the head of Misurata detention center, we would only hold migrants from Niger and Egypt, and send others from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia to the detention centers in Gharyan and Guwaiya. In 2014 we sent more than 4,000 refugees to these detention centers — men, women, children and the elderly. We have not got any official reports about what happened to them there, but unfortunately I can say that all of them went to the Mediterranean Sea.

Take the time to read and make notes if you can.


In the conversation about mapping boat movements, there’s a recommendation from Kirk Pettinga to David Phares about the search area. Seems like time we should start cross-referencing some of these efforts as we sharpen the focus on location.

Martino Galliolo has a piece (in Italian) on the life and times of Jamal Al-Saudi. “I made a lot of money.” English version coming very soon!

And some words of encouragement slash commentary from Nicholas Pfosi (“Talk about lighting a fire underneath you,” he writes) and Christine Levander, who suggests a rather radical solution to making sure we don’t lose more people in the future.

By the way, the photographs in today’s update are of Eritreans in Italy, and the work (as always) of the great Gianni Cipriano. We originally published them in Episode Seven.


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