[Eyes on the Central Med #12] Nearly 450 people rescued at sea amidst two tragic shipwrecks claiming 60 lives 

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.   

Four rescue operations carried out by NGO and private vessels off the Libyan coast

On January 25, the Asso Trenta, an Italian offshore supply vessel, disembarked 75 survivors in Lampedusa after rescuing them from a boat in distress near an offshore oil station off the coast of Libya where the ship operates, Mediterraneo Cronaca reported.

Between January 25 and 26, the Ocean Viking, the only civil rescue ship at sea these past two weeks, disembarked 373 survivors in Augusta, Sicily after all survivors and crew had been tested negative for Covid-19 by Italian authorities. “After weeks of bad weather, conditions off the Libyan coast improved earlier this week, which led to numerous departures of people trying to flee across the central Mediterranean on unseaworthy, overcrowded boats”, said Luisa Albera, Search and Rescue coordinator onboard the Ocean Viking in a press release. In her first mission after five months of detention, the Ocean Viking rescued 374 people from four boats in distress within less than 48 hours between January 21 and 22. Three rescue operations were conducted by day and by night. During the last rescue, several people went overboard before being recovered by the rescue team. Among the survivors were 165 minors and 48 women, including 4 pregnant women. One of them had to be medically evacuated on January 23 due to a high-risk pregnancy requiring urgent medical care on shore.

Two deadly shipwrecks reported and 452 people forcibly returned to Libya

Reports of shipwrecks and interceptions by the Libyan coastguard also came in as the team on the Ocean Viking was engaged in intense search and rescue operations. On January 19, 43 people are reported to have perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, after departing from Zawiya in the morning. Ten survivors of the shipwreck who were brought back to Libya by the Libyan coastguard recounted the events to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and International Rescue Committee (IRC) staff present at the disembarkation point. “The boat, which embarked (…) from the city of Zawya, reportedly capsized due to bad sea conditions when its engine stopped, just a few hours after departure”, details IOM and IRC, UNHCR’s partner on the ground. In their joint statement, the UN organisations reiterated their call for resumption of a European search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean and the need for a European solidarity towards coastal states: “This loss of life highlights once more the need for re-activation of State-led search and rescue operations, a gap NGO and commercial vessels are trying to fill despite their limited resources”, said UNHCR and IOM, calling for “ an urgent and measurable shift in the approach to the situation in the Mediterranean”, including “ending returns to unsafe ports, establishing a safe and predictable disembarkation mechanism followed by a tangible show of solidarity from European states with countries receiving high numbers of arrivals.”

Two days later, a shipwreck claimed 17 lives as reported by the IOM after collecting testimonies from survivors as 82 of them were forcibly returned to Libyan shores by the Libyan coastguard.   

Between January 19 and 25, a total of 452 people were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan coastguard, according to IOM. Colibri aircraft of Pilotes Volontaires and Moonbird aircraft of Sea-Watch witnessed one of these interception on January 20. Moonbird then witnessed two other interceptions on January 21 and January 22.

Between January 26 and February 1st, eight bodies washed-up on the Libyan shores, according to IOMSince the beginning of the year, 87 people are known to have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean, according to the IOM Missing Migrants Project, while autonomous arrivals in Italy decreased significantly since the beginning of the winter season. Between January 26 and 31, 167 persons arrived in Italy by the sea, according to UNHCR. Among them are 84 people, including 37 women and 18 minors, who departed from Sfax, Tunisia, according to Mediterraneo Cronaca. .

Update on current legal proceedings on search and rescue matters

In a decision published on January 27, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Italy failed to protect the right to life of more than 200 people who were on board a vessel who sank in the Mediterranean Sea in 2013. “Italy had failed to respond promptly to various distress calls from the sinking boat (…). The State party also failed to explain the delay in dispatching its navy ship, ITS Libra, which was located only about an hour away from the scene.” states OHCHR in a press release.

The hearing on Sea-Watch interim measure request to free its ships has been postponed to February 23, “pending the decision of the EU Court of Justice”, according to Sea-Watch. In the end of December 2020, the Regional Administrative Court of Palermo had ordered the referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union of the appeals filed by Sea-Watch against the administrative detentions affecting Sea-Watch 3 and Sea-Watch 4 since September 2020.

Cover picture: Fabian Mondl / SOS MEDITERRANEE