[Eyes on the Central Med #11] At least 19 people died at sea since the beginning of the year while most humanitarian rescue ships remain hindered 


The following publication by SOS MEDITERRANEE intends to shed light on events which unfolded in the central Mediterranean in the past two weeks. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a general update on maritime search-and-rescue-related matters occurring in the area we have been operating in since 2016, based on public reports by different NGOs, international organisations and the international press.     

A deadly shipwreck claimed a newborn’s life while the central Mediterranean remained empty of SAR NGO vessels 

These past two weeks, until January 18, the central Mediterranean has been empty of search and rescue (SAR) NGO vessels. Five humanitarian NGO vessels have been unable to operate due to administrative blockages for months now.  

The Ocean Viking could depart from Marseille, France, towards the central Mediterranean on January 11, for her first mission of the year after 5 months of imposed blockade and a few weeks of preparation. The SOS MEDITERRANEE teams and the marine crew onboard the vessel underwent a 10-day self-isolation period and were tested negative to COVID-19 several times before embarking. 

quarantine period of the Open Arms’ crew has ended on January 18. The team remained in self-isolation for 14 days following a lifesaving mission at sea at the turn of the year, during which they rescued 265 people. The Open Arms started sailing towards Barcelona to change crew and resupply before resuming their operations in the central Mediterranean.  

On January 11, about 44 people including eleven women, mostly from sub-Saharan countries, were rescued by the Tunisian navy off the coast of Tunisia, after five days at sea. They were found “floating near their boat which had disintegrated over the course of the journey”, explains InfomigrantsA newborn baby was found dead.    

At least 19 people died in the central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project, while 340 people have landed autonomously on the Italian coast, as reported by the Italian Ministry of the Interior.  


Preliminary hearing in Open Arms’ case 

Matteo Salvini attended a preliminary hearing before a Palermo judge on January 9The former Italian interior minister faces charges of sequestration and abuse of power following his refusal to let the Open Arms and 147 survivors onboard dock in an Italian port in 2019Seven of the rescued people who were on board the ship will take part in proceedings, which have been postponed until March 20The Preliminary hearings judge (GUP) admitted all motions presented by the plaintiffs. 

On January 12, UNHCR called on Portugal and Slovenia to “harness their 2021 European Union (EU) Presidencies and negotiations on the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum. Regarding SAR operations, UNHCR’s 2021 EU Presidency Recommendations welcomed the “important commitment [made in the Pact] to enhance search and rescue and ensure predictable disembarkation, which UNHCR hopes to see swiftly adopted(UNHCR Press release).   


Nearly 1000 people are confirmed to have perished in the central Mediterranean in 2020 

About 36,400 people are known to have crossed the central Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in 2020, according to the New Humanitarian. The independent non-profit news organisation founded by the United Nations recently published an investigation article on the tragedy which unfolded in the deadliest sea migration route between 2013 and 2020 

On January 14, the network Alarm Phone published a report looking back at the situation in the central Mediterranean over the past six months, from July to December 2020. The civil organisation estimates that 27,435 people tried to leave Libya in 2020Among them, nearly 3,700 people were rescued by NGO-vessels to Italy and 2,281 people arrived in Malta according to Alarm Phone. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that 11,891 people were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guards and forcibly returned to Libya in 2020.were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guards and forcibly returned to Libya in 2020. 

The IOMs Missing Migrants Project has recently updated the number of confirmed deaths and disappearances to 977 on the central Mediterranean route in 2020. These figures remain a minimum estimate, not counting all those who have perished in invisible shipwrecks. 


Cover picture: Fabian Mondl / SOS MEDITERRANEE