Retter hebt Kind auf Rettungsboot

[Chronology] Not letting anyone drown – 6 years of SOS MEDITERRANEE

On our 6th anniversary of SOS MEDITERRANEE´s founding on 9 May 2015 – Europe Day – we take a look back.

While European states outsource responsibility for sea rescue, ignoring their humanitarian values, civilian rescue organisations like SOS MEDITERRANEE work tirelessly to prevent people from dying in the Mediterranean.

In our chronology, we trace important political developments, the effects for people on the run and our commitment for rescue at sea.

October 2013: Italy engages in search and rescue

On 3rd of October 2013 and 11th of October 2013, 652 people drown as two boats carrying refugees sink off the coast of Lampedusa.

The pictures of hundreds of coffins sent shockwaves across Europe. As a result, Italy launches the operation “Mare Nostrum” (“our Sea”). Two weeks later the first marine and coastguard boats are deployed.

Quote from Pro Asyl
31.10.2014: Border protection instead of search and rescue

“Mare Nostrum” is terminated on 31st of October 2014. In one year, the operation rescues 150,000 people from distress at sea. However, the EU refuses to support Italy. So “Mare Nostrum” is replaced by the EU operation, “Triton”, carried out by the EU border agency Frontex. It primarily focus on securing the EU’s external borders along the Mediterranean by patrolling close to the coast.

09.05.2015: Founding of SOS MEDITERRANEE in Berlin, Germany

After more and more deaths in the Mediterranean, merchant ship captain Klaus Vogel founds SOS MEDITERRANEE Deutschland e.V., together with civil society members in Berlin. On 9th May, Europe Day, Vogel and French Expert for humanitarian assistance, Sophie Beau, bring the European network of SOS MEDITERRANEE to life.

In June 2015, the French association is founded, followed by the Italian association in 2016, and the Swiss association in 2017.

26.10.2015: No European search and rescue operation

On 26th of October 2015, the European Union launches the anti-smuggling operation EUNAVFOR MED also known as “Sophia”, in the Central Mediterranean. In contrast to the Italian search and rescue program “Mare Nostrum” its operational area is significantly smaller and its primary aim is to target smugglers. From June 2016 onwards, its mandate is extended to include the UN arms embargo off the Libyan coast and the training of the Libyan Coastguard and Navy.

Rettungsschiff Aquarius
Autumn 2015: European civil society fundraises for a ship

Numerous donations from European citizens enable SOS MEDITERRANEE to charter a former supply vessel and to equip it for its mission in the Central Mediterranean. The Aquarius is big enough to shelter refugees, can be used year-round and offers room for primary medical care. First, the organization Doctors of the World assumes the medical duties on board, which are then taken over by Médecins Sans Frontières from May 2016 till July 2020.

Mann, der beim ersten Rettungseinsatz mit der Aquarius sicher an Bord gebracht wurde
07.03.2016: First rescue operation

On 7th of March 2016, the Aquarius sailes from Sassnitz (Rügen) via Bremerhaven, Marseille and Lampedusa to its first mission in the Central Mediterranean. On the morning of 7th of March 2016, the team of SOS MEDITERRANEE rescues 74 people from a defect dinghy off the coast of Libya. In its first year of operation, the teams of SOS MEDITERANEE brings 11,096 people to safety.

Teams der Aquarius gedenken der 22 Menschen, die während eines Einsatzes nur noch tot geborgen werden konnten
2016 - Mediterranean remains deadly route

Under coordination of the competent authority of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre Rome, ships of Operations Triton and Sophia, merchant vessels, the Italian Navy and Coast Guard as well as civilian rescue vessels come to the aid of a total of 169,144 people in distress at sea. 11,264 of these people are brought on board the Aquarius and to a place of safety afterwards.

At the same time, the escape route across the central Mediterranean remains deadly: 5,083 people die or are considered missing. The security situation in the central Mediterranean is worsening, too: in August, the rescue ship Bourbon Argos operated by Médecins Sans Frontières is fired upon from a Libyan speedboat; in October, an armed attack on a refugee boat takes place during a mission of Sea-Watch – the attackers’ boat is assigned to the Libyan coast guard.

Nachdem die libysche Küstenwache während eines Rettungseinsatzes Warnschüsse abgibt, springen Menschen ins Wasser und versuchen schwimmend die Aquarius zu erreichen
03.02.2017: Establishment of the Libyan Coastguard by the EU

Through the Malta Declaration, the EU Member States cementer the establishment of the Libyan Coastguard and shift the responsibility for search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean to a third state. They lay a cornerstone for the violation of the applicable international law, which is being financed with more than 57 million Euros of European taxpayer’s money.

The implications for operations by civilian rescue organisations are fatal. On 23rd of May, rescue operations by SOS MEDITERRANEE are interrupted by gunfire from the Libyan coast guard. Several people jump into the water in panic but can be rescued by the rescue team. They are brought safely on board. During a mission of the organisation Sea-Watch on 6th October, the intervention of the Libyan coast guard leads to the death of five people.

As of spring 2017 - Campaigning against civilian sea rescuers

In the run-up, the newspaper Financial Times quotes a secret report by the european border and coast guar agency Frontex in December 2016. It suggests that civilian rescue organisations are collaborating with people smugglers and blames them for deaths in the Mediterranean. The Europe-wide attention paid to these accusations is expressed, among other things, in the initiation of criminal investigations against civilian search and rescue organisations in Italy.

Preliminary highlights of this development are: The imposition of a code of conduct for civilian sea rescuers by the Italian government (August 2017), the seizure of the rescue ship Iuventa (1st of August 2017) and the suspension of operations by the organisation Save the Children (October 2017).

At the same time, the Libyan authorities announce the establishment of a search and rescue zone that civilian organisations shouldn´t be allowed to enter (10th of August 2017). As a result, Médecins Sans Frontières decides to stop operating the rescue ship Prudence.

2017 – Escape across the Mediterranean becomes more dangerous

The situation in the Mediterranean has deteriorated dramatically over the course of the year. The cooperation of the European Union with the Libyan authorities, the criminalisation of humanitarian aid in the Mediterranean and the resulting further reduction of existing search and rescue capacities have concrete consequences. Escaping across the Mediterranean is becoming even more dangerous for people seeking protection.

Even though the number of arrivals (111,527) is decreasing compared to previous years, the number of those losing their lives (3,139) is increasing in terms of percentage.

At the same time, more people are being intercepted on the run and forced back to Libya (15,385) – the country from which the news channel CNN reported in November 2017 that established slave trade with refugees / migrants exists and that other serious human rights violations are part of everyday life.

Die Aquarius wird auf See blockiert. Gerettete harren an Bord aus.
09.-12.06.2018: Europe closes its borders

In June 2018, the Aquarius becomes the first civil rescue ship that is refused disembarkation of rescued people in a place of safety. Following the rescue of 629 people, the Aquarius can not disembark anywhere for 36 hours. The sanitary situation becomes unsustainable, supplies ran low and the psychological pressure on board is rising steadily.

Finally, on 12th of June 2018, news arrive that the rescued persons are allow to disembark in far-away Valencia, Spain. This entailes a difficult passage and the port is finally reached after an additional week at sea. From now on, for every rescue operation to follow it has to be (re-)negotiated among EU member states where rescued people can go ashore.

Sichtung eines Schlauchbootes in Seenot mittels Fernglas
28.06.2018: The EU shifts responsibility to Libya

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) assignes responsibility for the coordination of maritime emergencies off the Libyan coast to Libya – a move barely noticed by the public. A Libyan search and rescue zone is established and a Libyan Rescue Coordination Centre is set up. This all is financed by the EU. From this moment onwards, all rescue operations in international waters off the Libyan coast will be formally coordinated by the Libyan authorities.

Die Aquarius wird im Hafen von Marseille für die Rückgabe an den Eigner vorbereitet
As of August 2018 - Obstruction of civilian rescue at sea culminates in the end of the Aquarius' mission

After another blockade at sea, Gibraltar withdraws the flag from Aquarius in August. Following pressures by the Italian Government, Panama as a new flag state withdraws the registration of the Aquarius in October. Without a flag, a rescue ship is not allowed to return to sea.

The Public Prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, initiates investigations against Médecins Sans Frontières , SOS MEDITERRANEE’s medical partner. SOS MEDITERRANEE has no chance but to return the Aquarius to its owner after almost two years of operation and 29,523 people rescued, following the targeted attacks by governments, authorities and courts.

2018 - No improvement for sea rescue

The closure of ports for rescue ships marks a new and sad climax of the blockade of civilian sea rescue. But that is only the beginning: several civilian rescue vessels have been temporarily seized & civilian rescuers charged.

Meanwhile, fleeing across the Mediterranean remains deadly: statistically, one person drownes every four hours in the Mediterranean in 2018 (1,311). The number of those intercepted on the run and forced back into the civil war country of Libya is also increasing in percentage terms (15,536).

March 2019: Complete EU withdrawal from search and rescue

The EU withdraws all ships of Operation “Sophia” from the Mediterranean. Only reconnaissance airplanes remaine in place, but planes are unable to perform any rescues. People in distress at sea are thus left to their own devices or to face the Libyan Coastguard.

Rettungseinsatz mit der Ocean Viking
August 2019: #BackAtSea with the Ocean Viking

After six months, SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médecins Sans Frontières resume their life-saving operations at sea with a new ship, the Ocean Viking. The former supply- and salvage ship has been extensively converted for search and rescue and is also equipped with a clinic.

Suche mit Fernglas nach Booten in Seenot
2019 - Civilian rescuers on their own

In 2019, the policy of closed ports and protracted negotiations to disembark rescued persons continues – the survivors are the ones who suffer, but the situation is also always stressful for the rescuers themselves.

The continuous development of the Libyan coast guard and the withdrawal of European states from sea rescue are exacerbating the situation in the Mediterranean. The few civilian ships that can still provide assistance are largely on their own. The chances of finding a boat in distress on the high seas without any support from the competent authorities are very low. This also increases the risk of undetected shipwrecks and followed by a possibly high number of unreported cases of children, women and men drowning in the Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, the SOS MEDITERRANEE team succeeds in rescuing 1,373 people from distress at sea and bringing them to a safe place. At the same time, there are repeatedly more than a thousand deaths – with sharply declining arrival figures and increased activity by the Libyan coast guard, this is an indictment of the Nobel Prize winning EU.

das Rettungsschiff Ocean Viking ankert in Marseille
From March 2020: Restrictions on our deployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic

The impact of the global spread of Covid-19 also has implications for civilian maritime rescue. Because the safety and health of the crew and those rescued cannot be guaranteed under the conditions of closed ports, borders and overloaded or downed infrastructures, SOS MEDITERRANEE temporarily suspends operations in the Mediterranean. The Ocean Viking is anchored in the port of Marseille.

In this context, SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médecins Sans Frontières differ in how to approach the resumption of activities, and the latter communicates their decision to withdraw from the existing partnership in July 2020.

01.04.2020: New EU-mission in the Mediterranean

The new EU-Mission “Irini” replaces “Sophia”. Its main task is to maintain the arms embargo against Libya and to further expand the Libyan Coastguard. Search and rescue is explicitly not part of its mandate. The ships operating within the framework of “Irini” which is to patrol the Central Mediterranean Sea far away from the usual area where most sea crossings occur.

In der Klinik an Bord der Ocean Viking
22.06.2020: Back in action with a new medical team

This mission will be the first with a dedicated SOS MEDITERRANEE medical team. Since the announcement of the end of the partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières, SOS MEDITERRANEE has added a medical team to the existing search and rescue crew.

In addition, every effort has been made to ensure the safety of the crew and of the rescued on board for the upcoming missions. SOS MEDITERRANEE has taken multiple measures to contain the risk of the spread of the new coronavirus as well as to identify and manage suspected cases on board.

Das Rettungsschiff Ocean Viking wird im Juli 2020 im Hafen von Augusta festgesetzt
July 2020 until today: from detention over release to heading back at sea

Following an eleven-hour inspection by the Italian coastguard, the Ocean Viking is detained by Italian authorities in the port of Porto Empedocle, Sicily, on 22nd of July.

After lengthy and costly refits, Ocean Viking is finally released following a re-inspection in December.

SOS MEDITERRANEE returns to it´s life-saving operations with the Ocean Viking in early January 2021.