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28 March 1997/ 28 march 2009


Political Accountability for Extra-Territorial Border Controls: The Case of the Kater y Rades.

from Zobeida ( Australia)


Presentiamo in lingua originale uno stralcio di un'interessantissima ricerca universitaria di una giovanissima australiana,  studiosa sui problemi dei flussi migratori e della difesa dei diritti umani. Quello che potrete leggere è la ricostruzione della tragedia che si svolse quella maledetta sera del 28 marzo, una ricostruzione a cui abbiamo personalmente contribuito, con i nostri materiali di archivio e la personale esperienza ma nella quale la passione e l'analisi scientifica di tipo anglosassone  ha fatto di questo lavoro , di cui voi potrete leggere solo alcune pagine, degno di essere tradotto e pubblicato in Italia . 

Molte grazie, Zobeida per averlo concesso in esclusiva all'Osservatorio sui Balcani di Brindisi e a Pugliantagonista 

Antonio Camuso

Osservatorio sui Balcani di Brindisi

This thesis examines the changing configuration of the border in the European Union by examining a maritime incident between an Italian Navy vessel and an Albanian boat of asylum seekers that occurred in the Canal of Otranto in 1997.   The incident forces consideration of what constitutes legitimate state action to enforce borders, and how the current configurations of sovereignty are reasserting a highly territorial identity for the nation-state, primarily in response to undocumented migration.   The analysis highlights a key period of change in the enforcement of the border in the Canal of Otranto, and the development of an Italian discourse that articulates a rejection of asylum and fear of invasion.   In so doing, I consider how state action at the border is shaped and given legitimacy by discourses of security and humanitarianism.  By concentrating on the use of border controls that are mobile, operative extra-territorially and enforced militarily I consider the way in which limits on sovereign action are being reconfigured not only to respond to the unauthorised crossing of the border, but to negate the rights of individuals attempting to cross it.  


The Kater y Rades left Valona at around 4 P.M. on the 28 March 1997, severely overloaded and guided by an inexperienced driver.[1]  Twenty-one meters long, the vessel was equipped to carry just nine people, yet more than one-hundred and forty had embarked, weighing down the ships hull one meter in the water.[2]  Women and children were crowded into the cabins below deck, families were separated, and the men remained on the top deck.  The ship was without any kind of life-saving equipment or even a radio.[3]


The first sighting of the ship by Italian authorities was after 5 P.M., as the Kater, still in Albanian waters, passed the island of Saseno.  An Italian Navy ship, the Zeffiro communicated to the shore that on the deck of the Albanian vessel there were at least seventy people visible, but that as there were likely to be more inside the cabins the total number of passengers was unclear.[4]  The Zeffiro was instructed to begin operations according to the Rules Of Engagement (ROE), and specifically to engage in the “harassment” of the Kater.[5]  The Kater did not respond to calls on the radio and the Zeffiro progressively approached it, warning it to desist from the route towards Italy, otherwise the crew would be arrested and the passengers returned to Albania.[6]  The Kater ignored the warnings.  The Zeffiro continued its operations for around an hour, during which time the Sibilla, a smaller Italian Navy vessel, was instructed to leave its zone of patrol and go to the aid of the Zeffiro, specifically “to support operations of harassment”.[7]  By the time the Sibilla arrived, at around 5:45 P.M., the Kater had crossed into international waters, and command over the Sibilla was given directly to the Zeffiro.  The Zeffiro was also advised that operations should now be more decisive, to “near to the boat almost to touch it”.[8]  This was despite the knowledge that the ship was severely overloaded, and likely to be guided by an inexperienced driver.[9]


The sun began to set at 6:30 P.M., and the conditions of the sea worsened.[10]  The Sibilla zig-zagged around the Kater, repeating that it must change course.  The Navy vessel was more than four times the size of the Albanian ship, and almost forty times its weight, and the nearing towards the Kater repeatedly rocked the overloaded vessel.[11]  The subsequent actions of the Sibilla are not clearly recorded.  An operation to infiltrate a cable to stop the propulsion system of the Kater was ordered by the Sibilla’s captain, and then cancelled.  The Global Positioning System (GPS) of the Sibilla records two minute intervals of speeding up and slowing down of the boat.  At 6:56 P.M. the captain of the Sibilla reported that he was progressing with an “operation of harassment at the limits of security”.[12]  It is now completely dark.  At 6:57 P.M. the ships collide.[13]



The survivors of the incident reported that the Sibilla had neared extremely close to the Kater’s right side, as if to overpass or board the Albanian vessel.  As the driver of the Kater sought again to move away from the Sibilla, the force of the two boats, moving together, is considered to have pulled the Kater back towards the Sibilla.[14]  Although the Italian captain attempted to stop the Navy vessel and shift backwards, he was too close.  The Sibilla hit the right hand side of the Kater, towards its bow, pushing the boat onto its left hand side.  The Kater straightened, but remained directly in the path of the Sibilla, and was hit a second time, more forcefully on the top part of the ship’s deck.[15]  The ship again fell to its left, this time flipping entirely so that it was upside down in the water.  The passengers on the ship’s deck were thrown into the water.  Those in the cabins were trapped.  Although the air in the cabins kept the Kater suspended upside down in the water for a few minutes, the passengers who were trapped below had no means of breaking through the bottom of the boat.  The ship filled with water and sank to the sea bottom, 850 meters below the surface.[16]  Only 34 people survived the incident, and the majority of the 108 people killed were women and young children.[17]

Whether viewed as refugees under the Refugee Convention definition, seeking temporary shelter or merely attempting to migrate, international law recognizes the right of individuals to leave their own country.  Did the Italian nation-state have the right to prevent this action through the application of force? Is the control of immigration a sufficient basis for border controls which risk the lives of individuals?  The position of the Albanian asylum seekers illustrates the contradiction between the recognition of universal human rights and states’ claims to control the membership and access to those rights.  However, I will argue that this incident demonstrates the inability of both international and domestic law to protect individuals from the extra-territorial actions of the sovereign state.  It therefore underlines the gaps in accountability in the use of mobile, militarised border controls. 

[1]  Tribunale di Brindisi, Sez. Prima Penale, Sentenza no. 338/05 (Hereafter cited as ‘Tribunal Judgment’).  The term “Kater” will be used for the remainder of the paper to delineate the Albanian vessel.

[2]  La Repubblica, 30 March 1997, “‘Una strage volute di donne e bambini’: La drammatica denuncia dei sopravvissuti, ” p. 2. 

[3]  Tribunal Judgment, p. 44.

[4]  Tribunal Judgment, p. 7.

[5]  Tribunal Judgment, p. 64.

[6]  Tribunal Judgment, p. 3.

[7]  [It] Tribunal Judgment, p. 65.

[8]  [It]Tribunal Judgment, p. 29.

[9]  Tribunal Judgment, pp. 7, 44.

[10] Tribunal Judgment, p. 42.

[11] Tribunal Judgment, pp. 1 - 2.

[12] [It] Tribunal Judgment, p. 71.

[13] Tribunal Judgment, p. 68.

[14] Tribunal Judgment, p. 73.

[15] Tribunal Judgment, p. 74.

[16] Tribunal Judgment, p. 4.

[17] The numbers of dead and dispersed from the incident are often incorrectly cited in both press commentary on the incident and academic publications.  In particular, it is often recorded that the number of confirmed dead from the incident rests at 52.  In fact, this was the number of corpses recovered from the wreckage of the boat at the bottom of the sea bed.  The 34 survivors of the incident maintained, from when first led to shore, that there were 108 people unaccounted for following the incident. See Corriere della Sera, 19 January, 2000, “Scongiurai mio figlio – non devi partire,” p. 8.



to be continued>>



1)Brindisi 12 anni di lotte al fianco dei migranti

2)Brindisi,           8 marzo 1991, ventimila albanesi

3)IIl Comitato di solidarietà italo-albanese di Brindisil

4) 28/3/97 la strage del canale d'Otranto

5)le iniziative per ricordare i morti della Kater

6)Kater: i fatti raccontati dai superstiti

7) Il processo ai responsabili della strage della Kater

8) la Pivetti disse ributtateli a mare!

9) The case of the Kater I Rades

10) La mostra sull'affondamento della Kater

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