Forensic Oceanography

FO_LTD_SAR_image for pressImages extracted from the Addendum to the Report on the Left-To-Die Boat (June 2013)


Forensic Oceanography (FO) is an investigation into the conditions that have caused the death of more than 1500 persons fleeing Libya across the Central Mediterranean in the Spring of 2011 (estimate by UNHCR). FO has so far provided its expertise in spatial analysis to a number of organisations and institutions who have conducting inquiries into these deaths. The project will further seek to devise ways in which a wide range of technologies and media might be used to document violations of human rights at sea and increase accountability in the future.

The project emerged in response to a call by the French NGO GISTI and the formation of a coalition of NGOs (mainly CIRÉFIDHGISTILDH and Migreurop) aiming to seek accountability for the death of migrants at sea during the international military intervention in Libya and in the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising.Amongst the several cases of deaths of migrants at sea reported by the press and documented by FO in the course of its research, one particular event has been the main focus of the project so far. In the case of what is now referred to as the “left-to-die boat,” 72 migrants fleeing Tripoli by boat on the early morning of 27 March 2011 ran out of fuel and were left to drift for 14 days until they landed back on the Libyan coast. With no water or food on-board, only nine of the migrants survived. In several interviews, these survivors recounted the various points of contacts they had with the external world during this ordeal. This included describing the aircraft that flew over them, the distress call they sent out via satellite telephone and their visual sightings of a military helicopter which provided a few packets of biscuits and bottles of water and a military ship which failed to provide any assistance whatsoever. Despite the significant naval and aerial presence in the area due to the military intervention in Libya and despite the distress signals sent out to all vessels in the area by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, none of those who had contacts with the boat intervened in a way that could have averted the tragic fate of the migrants.


Images extracted from the Report on the Left-To-Die Boat (April 2012)

Over the past months, the Forensic Oceanography team has provided technical expertise in the form of maps and visual material on this specific case to Senator Tineke Strik, Rapporteur for the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), who has also released an in-depth report on the same issue; to Human Rights Watch, which has asked NATO and the states taking part to the military operations in Libya to disclose information on this case; and to a coalition of NGOs that has been supporting several survivors of this tragic incident who are in Paris filing a legal case against the French Army for non-assistance to people in distress at sea.

A report focusing on the spatial analysis of data surrounding this case has been released on 11 April 2011. This report includes a series of visualizations that supplement the written reports produced by the organisations and institutions mentioned above. In order to generate this analysis and report, FO employed a wide range of digital mapping and modelling technologies, which included the use of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery, geospatial mapping, and drift modelling. In combining these technologies to elucidate the chain of events of this particular case we also suggest new ways in which these emergent technologies could be applied to the field of international law and human rights advocacy.


“Left-to-die boat” case – Testimony of Dan Heile. Interview conducted on 22 December 2011 by Lorenzo Pezzani, in the presence of Father Mussie Zerai, filmed by Charles Heller.


Drift Model – Produced with the assistance of Richard Limeburner, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


PHASE TWO: WatchTheMed

A Mapping Platform to Monitor the Maritime Borders of the EU for Violations of Migrants’ Rights

WatchTheMed is a collaboration between Boats4People and the Forensic Oceanography research project at Goldsmiths College.



Acting as a “civilian watchtower” over the Mediterranean, WatchTheMed aims to collect information concerning incidents at sea from all possible sources, such as distress signals send out by the Coast Guards, different types of documentation coming from seamen, the press and migrants themselves, as well as satellite imagery. It inscribes these incidents within the complex political ecology of the Mediterranean, an area criss-crossed by overlapping Search and Rescue zones, maritime patrols, radar coverage areas, maritime traffic patterns, fisheries and oil rigs.

By assembling these multiple sources of information and spatialising this data, the WatchTheMed platform aims to become a new tool to bring an end to the persisting impunity towards migrants across the Mediterranean Sea.

WatchTheMed is a pilot project that will be tested and refined during the three weeks of the B4P journey. Help us monitor the maritime borders of the EU by reporting an incident occurred at sea, maritime patrols or means of surveillance on or send us an email at:

Media coverage Livorno, salpa l’ Oloferne: Il Mediterraneo sia solidale