[Eyes on the Central Med #10] 265 lives saved amid tragic deaths and forced returns to Libya at the turn of the year


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.   


265 people rescued in less than 48 hours between the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 

The Open Arms of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescued 265 people in two different operations on the night of New Year’s Eve and on January 2. All survivors were disembarked off Porto Empedocle, Sicily, in the night of January 4 to 5. The adults were transferred on a quarantine-ship, the Rhapsody while the minors, – who were all tested negative to rapid anti-COVID swabs prior to disembarkation–, were transferred with patrol boats to the pier. Among the survivors were 51 unaccompanied minors, 6 babies and a 9-month pregnant woman. In the first operation, the team onboard Open Arms had rescued 169 people from a wooden boat in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region (SRR). In the second operation, 96 people were rescued from a wooden boat in distress in the Maltese SRR. As reported by the Times of Malta, according to the network Alarm Phone, who was first informed of the distress situation of the wooden boat, the Maltese authorities did not answer the distress call.   


Departures, tragic deaths and forced returns know no rest 

In a sad continuation of the tragic events that marked 2020, more shipwrecks off and forced returns to Libya were reported at the turn of the year.   

On December 26, the network Alarm Phone alerted to a boat in distress with approximately 13 people onboard. Their fate remains unknown. On December 24, the body of a deceased person washed up on the Libyan shore while a tragic shipwreck claimed at least 20 lives after a boat capsized off Sfax, Tunisia. According to Il Manifesto, “of the 20 bodies recovered by the Tunisian Coast Guard, 19 belonged to women, four of whom were pregnant”. The Tunisian coastguard rescued several people and searched for at least 13 others reported missing. 

In the first five days of the new year, the IOM Missing Migrants’ Project has been informed of 15 deaths in the central Mediterranean. On January 3, eight people were reported missing at sea to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) by survivors who had been returned to Libya. Between January 3 and 4, over 160 people, including women and children, were intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan coastguard, the IOM reported. Among them were at least 9 women, one of them pregnant, and 11 children, reported UNHCR. 

In 2020, at least 779 people died in the central Mediterranean according to IOM Missing Migrants’ Project – an estimated minimum, not counting all those who perished in invisible shipwrecks without witnesses – and a total of 11,891 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya according to the IOM. 


Autonomous arrivals in Italy subsist despite bad weather 

Despite the rough sea and high waves, these past two weeks several autonomous landings were reported in Lampedusa, Pantelleria and Crotone area by Italian media outlets and international organisations. On December 31, a boat with 20 people onboard arrived autonomously in Lampedusa. On December 27, over a hundred people arrived on the Sicilian Island after their boat was thrown on a cliff by the rough sea. According to Alarm Phone, three boats arrived in Lampedusa within 24 hours between December 23 and 24, –at least one boat with 65 people onboard arrived from Libya on December 24 according to the IOM. Over 110 people have been reported to have landed in Pantelleria between December 23 and 25. According to Rai News 24 journalist Angela Caponnetto, a sailboat from Turkey arrived in the Crotone area on December 23.  

According to the Italian ministry of interior, 34,134 people landed on Italian coasts in 2020, an increase of 198 % of arrivals by the sea compared to 2019.  


A second case against Italy, 5 SAR NGO vessels still blocked 

On January 5, Sea-Eye filed a lawsuit against the detention of the rescue ship Alan Kurdi at the Italian administrative court in Cagliari. According to the German NGO, “the court should now decide on the legality of the detention in an urgent procedure”. The ship has been under detention in Sardinia for three months. 

On December 23, the Regional Administrative Court of Palermo ordered the referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union of the appeals filed by Sea-Watch against the administrative detentions of the Sea-Watch 3 and the Sea-Watch 4. The Regional Administrative Tribunal reportedly asked the European Court to rule on the legitimacy of the application of the European Directive 2009/16/EC (on Port State Controls) to any humanitarian ship flying a foreign flag. The Regional Administrative Court has postponed its decision on Sea-Watch’s request to suspend the detentions until 26 January, while waiting to know whether the European Court will apply the accelerated procedure or not. 

These past two weeks again, the central Mediterranean remained almost empty of SAR NGO vessels. Five humanitarian NGO vessels are unable to operate due to administrative blockages. SOS MEDITERRANEE expresses its full support to their crews in their effort to go back to sea while our teams are undergoing a quarantine period, preparing the return of the Ocean Viking to sea after her release on December 21.  



Cover Picture: Anthony Jean / SOS MEDITERRANEE