Blocking NGOs who provide assistance is not a solution to the EU’s lack of cooperation

Following an administrative, political and judicial harassment campaign targeting the Aquarius, SOS MEDITERRANEE announced its decision to stop chartering the ship it was operating with since the beginning of 2016. The Aquarius could no longer be a durable solution to save lives at sea after losing its flag under political pressure twice (Gibraltar and then Panama) and then being threatened with seizure by Italian judicial authorities. Despite our best efforts, negotiations with several countries to find a flag had not been successful.

Furthermore, a seizure of the vessel would have meant a halt of the Aquarius for an indefinite period. In such case, we would not have been able to terminate the lease of the vessel and this would have left us with no material and financial possibilities to continue operating at sea. Parting with the Aquarius was a difficult but salutary decision for a better return at  sea. Because saving lives is and will remain our mission!

Rescue ships looking for “places of safety” to disembark

By the end of 2018, several NGO ships were finally able to return to the Search and Rescue area. Due to the criminalization of their action, they have been previously blocked in ports for several months. The Spanish NGO Proactiva-Open Arms rescued more than 300 people off Libya just a few days before Christmas and, following several coastal countries’ denial of a safe port to disembark the survivors, they sailed for seven days to finally land in Spain.

A new “time record” was set for survivors aboard two other NGO rescue ships: negotiations involving some European states and the European Commission plunged 49 survivors into endless, degrading and unacceptable uncertainty for 19 long days. The ships of Sea Watch and Sea Eye, both German organizations, were floating around for days without being able to dock. The height of European indifference towards these survivors: survivors had  a clear daily view over the Maltese shores from the stranded ships. Out of despair, one of them finally jumped into the water trying to reach the mainland by swimming. He was pulled out of the water by the rescue team. This man has risked his life at sea twice in a few days. International maritime conventions have been specifically designed to avoid such situations[1]. Nonetheless, in the past seven months -following the closure of Italian ports- one can only observe ad hoc political negotiations on survivors’ relocation on European territory. Solutions found by some EU Member States are real but come late, putting survivors at greater risks every day. Matters of relocation of rescued people can in no way condition and jeopardize their safe disembarkment.

On January 14, Open Arms was banned from leaving the port of Barcelona to the Search and Rescue area: Spanish authorities alluded to the current lack of safe and near ports to land in the central Mediterranean… But blocking NGOs who provide assistance is not a solution to the EU’s lack of cooperation. A common, predictable and coordinated mechanism must be created as a matter of emergency, since departures from the Libyan coast – as seen in December – continue.

“Unimaginable horrors”

Every day, men, women and children continue to risk their lives fleeing Libya. Reports released in early January by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the year 2018 are severe. At least 2.260 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean last year, 1.314 of them on the central Mediterranean route[2]. And then there are the Libyan coastguards, funded by the European Union, which since the beginning of 2017, according to the UN, have intercepted and brought 29,000 people back to the country they were fleeing  from. A UN report describes the “unimaginable horrors” that migrants and refugees face in the country[3]. After each rescue on board the Aquarius in its 34 months of activity, many  rescued people told us over and over again about those living conditions.
If the walls of the Aquarius could talk, they would recount the nearly 30.000 stories, the pains, the horrors of Libya and of the crossing, but also the moments of joy found aboard this ambulance of the sea.

In the current context, it is urgent to pursue our rescue mission with a new ship. Together, we will go back to sea in 2019.

The new vessel we are actively looking for will be a new tool for us. It will be a younger ship than the Aquarius, with a flag that, hopefully, will withstand political pressure. To date, we have received concrete proposals which our teams are meticulously studying. This vessel must indeed meet specific technical criteria and professional standards, more specifically in terms of safety and security. The ship should be of a substantially equal size of the Aquarius, with enough space to install a clinic, different areas to shelter survivors and at least two rigid-hulled inflatable lifeboats for our operations at sea.

[1] A rescue operation shall be considered complete only when the survivors are disembarked in a place of safety close to the place where the rescue took place, as soon as possible (a place where the safety of the survivors will no longer be threatened and their basic needs will be respected).

[2] Figures from IOM (International Organization for Migration)

[3] “UN report sheds light on ‘unimaginable horrors’ faced by migrants and refugees in Libya, and beyond”,, December 20, 2018