Why are civil search and rescue activities needed in the Central Mediterranean?
The Mediterranean has become the deadliest border in the world. Since 2000, tens of thousands of people have drowned or have gone missing in the Mediterranean . In 2016, over 5,000 people died in their attempt to flee across the Mediterranean – more than ever before . How many never arrived, because their boats sank and disappeared without a trace? We do not know.
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 – no matter their origin, ethnicity or reasons for flight. It was the lack of rescue capacities in the Mediterranean that motivated a group of European citizens to charter their own rescue vessel. Since February 2016, SOS MEDITERRANEE has been operating its rescue ship Aquarius continuously.
As long as people have to travel along dangerous flight routes across the Mediterranean due to a lack of secure and legal alternatives, SOS MEDITERRANEE will be there to rescue those in distress and to provide professional care.
Why a civil rescue initiative?
Civilian maritime rescue differs from other forms of maritime rescue on one very crucial point: it is solely committed to rescuing people from distress and has no other political objectives. SOS MEDITERRANEE is a humanitarian maritime organization committed to respecting human dignity. It provides aid to all people in distress.
The Aquarius is a seaworthy and sturdy ship, suitable for year-round rescue operations.
Furthermore, as a civic organization, SOS MEDITERRANEE is able to report transparently from on-board, thereby informing the European public about the realities of flight and migration in the Mediterranean.
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 for the Aquarius and staffs 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 since February 2016 and together we are SOS MEDITERRANEE.
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 forms the legal basis for rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Article 98 (1) reads as follows: ‘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?
The Aquarius patrols 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). All rescues are coordinated by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC Rome).
With whom does SOS MEDITERRANEE work together at sea?
All operations in international waters between Italy and Libya are coordinated by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC Rome). The MRCC also instructs us with whom to co-operate during a rescue operation, if and when to transfer persons rescued by other ships and in which port of safety to disembark the rescued.
Who are the rescued and where are they coming from?
By October 2017, SOS MEDITERRANEE has rescued more than 17,000 refugees from distress and tended to a total of more than 24,000 people aboard the Aquarius. The majority of those that have been rescued come from African countries: Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana and Sudan are among the most frequent countries of origin, besides Nigeria and Eritrea. Another large group are people from Bangladesh (about 6.4%). 85% of the rescued are men, about 15% are women. One-third of the rescued were minors at the time of rescue, most of them unaccompanied.
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 an exemplary rescue look like?
In a case of distress, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome coordinates the available rescue services. Either our crew reports a case of distress to the MRCC, who then, if necessary, instructs our ship to proceed to their rescue, or a distress is notified to the MRCC, which then forwards the necessary information and instructions to our ship.
Once a boat in distress is located, the MRCC provides instructions, for the Aquarius to prepare for rescue. The rescue team approaches the affected boat with our RHIBs and makes first contact with the people on board. After distributing life jackets to everyone, our teams start bringing people to the Aquarius in small groups. Medical emergencies are evacuated first followed by children and women and then men. Our medical partner “Doctors Without Borders” ensures the medical care until the Aquarius has reached a port of safety and the rescued can disembark.
What happens after the rescue?
On board, our partner “Doctors Without Borders” provides medical care to the rescued. All rescued receive clean clothing and food. Women and children are accommodated in a separate space, the so-called “shelter”.
While proceeding to a port of safety, the survivors receive information about the European and Italian immigration and asylum systems. Our teams also document the stories of the refugees.
Finally, the Italian MRCC decides on the port of safety to disembark the rescued.
Why are the rescued brought to the European mainland?
The international law of the sea states that people in distress not only need to be rescued, but also brought to a “place of safety”(SOLAS / Chapter 5 / regulation 33) . In line with this, it must therefore be ensured that people receive food, shelter and medical care and that they face no danger of further persecution. These criteria cannot be met by North African coastal states – in particular Libya  . Returning people to these countries would thus constitute a violation of the internationally recognised prohibition of refoulement .
Does the presence of civilian rescue ships cause more people to risk the dangerous crossing?
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.
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 Aquarius. 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, etc..