• Human Rights

Forensic Oceanography Report

This research was undertaken in the frame of Forensic Architecture - a European Research Council project, and together with its London based team.

This Forensic Oceanography report is a spatial-temporal analysis of the events that led to the death of 63 migrants at sea off the coast of Libya in the spring of 2011, conducted in collaboration with Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani. The release of the report will be included in a body of evidence submitted by a team of French NGOs (CIRÉ, FIDH, GISTI, LDH and Migreurop) in a legal case being filed against France for non-assistance at sea.


  • Charles Heller
    Lorenzo Pezzani

Visualization of the drift model constructed for the "Left to Die Boat."

In the spring of 2011, during the NATO arms embargo on the Qaddafi regime, 72 migrants attempted to flee Libya departing from Tripoli and destined for Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. They got halfway to their destination only to then run out of fuel and drift at sea for 14 days in what, at the time, was likely the most surveilled maritime zone in the world. In order to piece together the chain of events which ultimately resulted in 63 deaths, Situ collaborated with Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani of Goldsmiths University's Centre for Research Architecture to produce a report on what has since become known as the “left to die boat”. The report was submitted as evidence in a lawsuit filed by the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) on the behalf of two survivors. The claim targets French and Spanish military ships for criminal neglect of the United Nations’ Law of the Sea protocol.


The report seeks to address what is ultimately a spatial question - who was present in the area, informed of the migrant vessel's distress and failed to respond?

During the course of the investigation, the team enlisted Richard Limeburner, Senior Research Specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanography Institute, to calculate a drift trajectory model of the boat, utilizing wind and ocean current data available through public databases such as MyOcean and EuroWeather.


Left: Ocean and wind current vectors. Right: Calculated drift trajectory.

After consolidating a complex range of data, including remote sensing data, maritime Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), drift models, and survivor interviews, the report was able to offer a reconstruction of the chain of events throughout the migrant vessel's perilous journey, including its points of encounter with other maritime and aircraft assets.

Spatio-temporal mapping of the "Left to Die Boat's" time adrift.

By synthesizing several types of data, diagrams were created to elucidate the sequence of events beginning at the boat’s departure, through the point at which the boat begins to drift, and to the eventual landing south of Tripoli 14 days later.


Left: Mapping of the "Left to Die Boat's" encounters with other vessels. Right: Naval bounds of the "Left to Die Boat's" journey.


To evaluate the probability that the migrant's boat came into contact with other vessels, the report employed synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which provided data sufficient to map positions of ships greater than 50 meters in length. The increased pixel intensity seen in Figure C, exemplifies a positive return for a large metal ship.



SAR imagery positive returns (B,C).


Using the SAR data, the team was able to juxtapose the reconstructed drift trajectory with the positions of nearby ships as they passed by. Because the drifting migrant’s vessel occurred within the embargo zone that was being patrolled by a wide range of NATO assets, the identification of these ships is of particular interest.



Survivor accounts have since helped to substantiate the correlations made between the calculated drift models and SAR data. Below is an interview conducted by Situ’s collaborators Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller recording the testimony of one survivor, Dan Heil Gebre. By drawing upon both the empirical data (i.e. GPS coordinates and wind/current data) as well as the testimony provided by the survivors, the work done on this case was synthetic in nature. The report is an attempt to converge quantitative and qualitative data into a single context to create the most complete reconstruction of events possible. A full account is provided in the report itself and can be found here.



Interview of Dan Heil Gebre conducted and filmed by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani.

After the Paris Prosecutor’s Office ignored initial complaints in April of 2012, two of the survivors have since filed the case as civil parties, forcing open a judicial investigation as to why French and Spanish military ships criminally neglected a vessel in distress. For an updated and concise overview of the report and its legal proceedings, please click here or below to watch the live recording of FIDH's press conference June 18th, 2013. Skip to 31:00 min to see the work described in English. 


Lorenzo Pezzani presenting data gathered in the Forensic Oceanography report at an FIDH press conference.