Why are civil search and rescue activities needed in the Mediterranean?
The central Mediterranean Sea has become the deadliest migration route in the world. Since 2014, 15,215 people have perished on this route . In 2016, over 5,000 people died in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean . These are only the ones we know about. At the same time, the European Union has not yet found a common response to the tragedy in the Mediterranean. On 9 May 2015, SOS MEDITERRANEE was founded in the belief that no one should drown in the Mediterranean. The lack of rescue capacities in the Mediterranean was what motivated a group of European citizens, including professional seafarers and humanitarian aid workers, to charter their own rescue vessel. As a result, between February 2016 and October 2018, SOS MEDITERRANEE operated the rescue ship M/V Aquarius and assisted 29,523 people.
In August 2019, together with Doctors Without Borders as our medical partner, we resumed our life-saving mission in the Mediterranean Sea with our new rescue ship the Ocean Viking. In June 2020 and after the end of the partnership with Doctors Without Borders, the new medical team is operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE, too.
What is SOS MEDITERRANEE?
SOS MEDITERRANEE is an initiative composed of European citizens with various professional backgrounds (maritime, humanitarian, medical, etc.). SOS MEDITERRANEE is a humanitarian maritime association, politically and religiously independent. It provides aid to people in distress at sea, based on the principles of respect for humans and their dignity, with no discrimination in concern with their nationality or origin, their social belonging, religious or political beliefs or ethnic identity.
As a civil observer, SOS MEDITERRANEE reports on the situation in the Mediterranean and documents its activities at sea (https://onboard.sosmediterranee.org/). Independent journalists and media teams regularly accompanied rescue operations of the Aquarius and continue to do so with the Ocean Viking. Thus, the civil society can be informed and be witnesses to what is happening in the central Mediterranean Sea.
How is SOS MEDITERRANEE financed?
SOS MEDITERRANEE is a non-profit association and is financed exclusively through donations. Our partner Doctors Without Borders (MSF) contributes to the monthly costs first for the Aquarius and now the Ocean Viking. MSF also equips the medical team on board.
Together with our national associations in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, we have been financing the operation of our rescue ship Aquarius from February 2016 to October 2018 and continue to raise the means for the continuation of our life-saving mission with the Ocean Viking.
What is the legal basis for search and rescue activities in international waters?
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea  of 10 November 1982, amongst other international conventions, forms the legal basis for rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Article 98 (1) states that: “Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost”.
In which area are the rescues conducted?
Since it first started operating at sea, SOS MEDITERRANEE has been patrolling the central Mediterranean in international waters between Italy and Libya. Statistically speaking, this is where most boats in distress occur. The rescues take place outside Libyan territorial waters (known as the 12-mile zone). Until the summer of 2018 the Italian MRCC Rome coordinated all rescue operations. Now Libya is officially in charge of coordinating the rescue operations. Since the summer of 2017, SOS MEDITERRANEE’s teams have repeatedly observed how the Libyan coastguard intercepts refugees in international waters and illegally returns them to Libya, which cannot be considered a place of safety to disembark survivors according to international maritime law.
With whom does SOS MEDITERRANEE work together at sea?
SOS MEDITERRANEE coordinates all search and rescue operations with the relevant maritime authorities and with other actors potentially able to render assistance to boats in distress on-scene (ships and maritime aircrafts), always keeping maritime authorities informed of ongoing developments. Maritime rescue coordination centres are the ones responsible for determining who we cooperate with during our rescue operations, if and when we transfer rescued people from other ships, and in which port we disembark them. In 2017, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC) started transferring the responsibility for the coordination of search and rescue efforts in international waters to the Libyan coastguard. In June 2018, a Libyan search and rescue zone appeared in the International Maritime Organization register, along with a Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC). During its most recent rescues, SOS MEDITERRANEE has been experiencing a lack of coordination and information-sharing from maritime authorities (see https://onboard.sosmediterranee.org/).
How is the cooperation with the Libyan Coastguard?
SOS MEDITERRANEE has always carried out its search and rescue operations in coordination with the relevant maritime authorities and continues to abide by the applicable maritime law. This includes the coordination with the respective rescue coordination centre. That is why during its most recent rescue operations, SOS MEDITERRANEE kept the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) informed about the progress of its rescues. The attempts of contacting the Libyan JRCC were, however, mostly in vain. Either the Libyan authorities did not respond to the radio calls and emails at all, with important delays, or did not speak any English -both of which are required for effective and prompt coordination of rescues from rescue coordination centres (RCCs) .
In theory, following a rescue, the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (LYJRCC) is also responsible for designating a port for disembarkation. Does SOS MEDITERRANEE disembark rescued people in Libya?
No. In accordance with international maritime law, a rescue is only completed when the survivors have been disembarked in a place of safety, where no threat to their life exists, and where they can receive food, shelter and medical care (SOLAS / Chapter 5 / Regulation 33). These criteria do not apply to Libya. Various reports by Human Rights Watch , the UN Support Mission in Libya and the UN Human Rights office  show that migrants and refugees are exposed to large-scale human rights abuses in Libya, including arbitrary detention, torture, forced labour and sexual exploitation. Returning survivors to Libya would therefore represent a violation of international maritime law as well as the principle of non-refoulement. In a recent position note, the UN refugee agency also did “not consider that Libya meets the criteria for being designated as a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation following rescue at sea” .
Who are the rescued and where are they coming from?
By May 2020, SOS MEDITERRANEE has assisted 31,618 refugees in distress situations.
The overwhelming majority of the rescued spent considerable time in Libya before attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. On board, the rescued tell our teams that they have been subjected to widespread human rights violations while in Libya, either directly or indirectly. Violence and exploitation are commonplace. We collect and publish these reports as “voices from the sea“.
What does a "typical" rescue look like?
If and when a boat in distress is identified, our rescue ship proceeds to its location and starts the rescue operation in coordination with the relevant maritime authorities. The rescue team approaches the boat in distress with smaller speedboats and establishs contact with the people in distress. After all of the life vests have been distributed, the team began to take smaller groups of people aboard our speedboats. Medical emergencies are evacuated first. Followed by children and women and then men. Our medical team provides the medical care and first steps of humanitarian protection until the ship reaches a place of safety to disembark the survivors.
Until May 2018, the Italian MRCC was informing our ship about boats in distress, providing us with their last known position and giving us instructions for the search and rescue of these boats. Since responsibility for the search and rescue coordination in international waters in the central Mediterranean was transferred from Italy to Libya, we have had to base our search for boats in distress on our own constant lookout, radars aboard the rescue ship and other civilian ships and reconnaissance aircrafts, while always keeping maritime authorities informed. We have received very little to no information regarding boats in distress at sea from states’ authorities. Based on maritime law, SOS MEDITERRANEE defined its operational framework, stating that: “if and when a boat in distress is identified and if requested to keep away from a boat in distress or to delay our intervention while we have reason to believe that the danger is imminent, and if we are not sure that all necessary means are deployed on time and adequately, we will rescue these people without delay, with the intention to save their lives, to provide proper emergency care, and to bring them to a place of safety which meets the criteria of the [maritime] conventions”.
What happens after the rescue?
SOS MEDITERRANEE’s mission is to rescue, protect and testify. Since its first operation, SOS MEDITERRANEE, aims at addressing the needs of survivors in the aftermath of a rescue. All rescued receive clean clothing and food. Women and children are accommodated in a separate space, the so-called “shelter”.
Our protection mission is the logical extension of “duty to assist” principles and international maritime law requirements: a ship which has carried out a rescue represents a first platform to address the medical needs of survivors, to collect their testimony, but also to identify the particularly vulnerable people like survivors of torture and unaccompanied minors, to later report them to authorities and organizations specializing in protection upon arrival in ports. These testimonies are collected only on consent of the people and in all confidentiality. This protection mission is of a special nature given the psychological and physical profile of rescued people following months or years spent in Libya.
Until summer 2018, the Italian MRCC coordinated the rescues and designated a place of safety for disembarkation. By closing their ports to civilian rescue ships, both Malta and Italy have suspended applicable maritime law. In the recent past, this has led to diplomatic stalemates, in which rescue ships had to remain out at sea for several days, before the rescued could be brought ashore in a place of safety.
Does the presence of civilian rescue ships cause more people to risk the dangerous crossing (pull-factor hypothesis)?
This question is based on the assumption that it is permissible not to rescue people in distress, in order to prevent further people from fleeing. We consider this assumption to be inhumane and cynical. It is also contrary to the duty of rescue at sea, which is clearly defined by the international law of the sea.
Several studies have clearly demonstrated that there is no link between the presence of civilian rescuers and the number of refugees. People flee for reasons distinct from the number of rescue ships present   . Fewer rescue ships do not lead to fewer refugees, but to more deaths during flight.
What does SOS MEDITERRANEE call upon European states?
- The respect for human life must always take precedence over all other considerations.
- Survivors aboard rescue ships are vulnerable and must be treated with dignity and humanity, and receive the necessary care that their vulnerable condition requires. According to the applicable law, a rescue operation is only concluded when a place of safety for disembarkation has been reached.
- A clear framework for the conduct of search and rescue missions, based on international human rights and maritime law.
- Sufficient and adequately equipped rescue ships must be deployed in the Mediterranean, to ensure full coverage of the search and rescue zone.
- According to maritime conventions, disembarking rescued people in a place of safety safe harbour should not be delayed.
How can I support SOS MEDITERRANEE?
SOS MEDITERRANEE is supported by European civil society. Volunteers from all over the world, with backgrounds ranging from maritime to disaster relief and humanitarian aid, work aboard our rescue ship. To ensure that we can continue to save lives professionally, we depend on donations from civil society. We also welcome support in the form of fundraisers, benefit concerts and awareness-raising events organized by hundreds of volunteers in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.