Five years. It has now been five years that SOS MEDITERRANEE operates in the Central Mediterranean. This anniversary is no reason to celebrate: That our work is still needed, maybe more than ever, is a sad reality. What is more, over the course of the existence of our organisation, we have witnessed an extreme deterioration of the context we work in. But we have also seen thousands of citizens getting involved and standing by our side. It is thanks to this exceptional support that SOS MEDITERRANEE has been able to assist a total of 31,799 women, men and children over the years.
It all starts with a sense of indignation, a refusal to stand idly by while one shipwreck after the other occurs on Europe’s doorstep. On October 31st 2014, the European Union ended operation Mare Nostrum, launched by Italy two years prior, that saved 150,000 lives in the Central Mediterranean. So, in 2015, no dedicated Search and Rescue capacity was deployed on this migration route, which was then and remains to this day the deadliest maritime migration route in the world.
In spring 2015, Klaus Vogel, captain of the German merchant navy, and Sophie Beau, a French humanitarian, create SOS MEDITERRANEE along with, at the time, a handful of European citizens. Only a few months later, they charter a first rescue ship: the Aquarius.
From the first operations in February 2016, the members of the rescue team learn about “the Libyan hell” through the testimonies of the people they rescue: reports of detention, extortion, rape, forced labour …
At the time, SOS MEDITERRANEE draws support and praise for its work from numerous European institutional and political actors.
2017 is a turning point. Our organisation, like other sea rescue NGOs, becomes the target of first vilifications of the work of Search and Rescue NGOs, being accused of “complicity with the smugglers” or of creating a “pull factor effect”. Baseless allegations that could never be sustained.
In June 2018, the Aquarius is the first humanitarian ship to be denied a port by the Italian authorities to disembark people rescued at sea. After more than 36 hours of waiting, the rescue team and the 630 exhausted survivors on board are forced to sail towards Valencia in Spain, a voyage of more than 1500 kilometres, to finally be allowed to disembark.
Along with the closing of Italian ports for humanitarian ships by the Italian Minister of Interior at the time, Matteo Salvini, the responsibility for the Search and Rescue Region of the Central Mediterranean is officially passed on to the Libyan Coast Guard. From this point forward, civil rescue organisations have been forced to operate in the chaotic and unsustainable reality of a severe lack of coordination of Search and Rescue operations. What is more, when said Libyan Coast Guard does intercept boats, they return the survivors to Libya in blatant contradiction with international maritime law which clearly states that Libya cannot be considered a Place of Safety.
So, while the operations of SOS MEDITERRANEE were established to make up for the failure of European States to act on the human tragedy that is playing out in the Central Mediterranean, our organisation is also faced with a lack of solidarity by the European Union the moment we have rescued people on board our ship. Numerous times, the rescued people, already exhausted and weakened by what they have had to endure during and prior to their attempt at crossing the Mediterranean, were left without any disembarkation solution for days and days while European authorities falter and defer, delaying the assignment of a safe port for disembarkation.
And to add to the cynicism, SOS MEDITERRANEE, like other sea rescue organisations, is subject to administrative harassment, stopping us from saving lives. Since July 22nd 2020, the Ocean Viking is blocked in Italy, detained by the Italian authorities.
But giving up is out of the question. “Saving lives is an absolutely unconditional imperative”, Macha Makeïeff, General Director of La Criée theatre in Marseille and supporter of SOS MEDITERRANEE, recalled on SOS MEDITERRANEE’s 5 year anniversary event in September. These are the words we act by. It is thanks to the thousands of European citizens who have been involved by our sides that we have been able to face all these obstacles over the past five years. Our fight continues.
Photo: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE