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.
In the beginning of February, people attempted to flee Libya across the central Mediterranean in numbers unseen for months amid weather conditions favourable to departures. While five NGO vessels remain blocked for administrative reasons, the Ocean Viking of SOS MEDITERRANEE and the Open Arms and Astral vessels of Proactiva-Open Arms were operating in the central Mediterranean within these past two weeks. A total of 614 survivors could be assisted and rescued from seven boats in distress in the Libyan and the Maltese Search and Rescue Regions. Unfortunately, not all of the people who attempted to cross the central Mediterranean survived, with a shipwreck south of Lampedusa reported on the weekend of February 13: one person is known to have died and twenty-two others are reported missing. Unseen numbers of people being intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya were also recorded. More on the events of these past two weeks below.
February 12 and 13: 146 people rescued by Open Arms, at least 23 lives claimed in a tragic shipwreck off Tunisia
On February 16, the humanitarian ship Open Arms of the Catalan NGO Proactiva–Open Arms disembarked 146 survivors in Porto Empedocle, Sicily. The crew on Open Arms had performed two rescue operations in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region (SRR) on February 12 and 13. In the first operation, 40 children, women and men, including a 3-month-old baby, were rescued from a wooden boat that had departed from Zuwara, Libya. The boat in distress was first spotted by Seabird, a Sea-Watch aircraft. The following day, the Open Arms rescued in extremis 106 people from an unseaworthy rubber boat. According to the crew, “a few minutes after [the rescue] (…), the boat capsized and sank with the arrival of a storm and waves of up to 4 metres”.
That same day, a tragic shipwreck occurred approximately off Lampedusa. Of the 48 people onboard the boat who had departed from the Tunisian coast, only 25 could be rescued by the Tunisian Navy. Bad weather interrupted the rescue operations, as The Guardian reported, adding that the body of a deceased person had been recovered from the water. Twenty-two other people are reported missing.
468 people rescued by Ocean Viking, Astral and Italian coastguards within 48 hours in the first week of February
Within less than 48 hours on February 4 and 5, the Ocean Viking rescued 423 survivors in four operations in international waters in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region. Among them were 6 pregnant women and 149 minors (over 80% of whom were unaccompanied). On February 6, a pregnant woman in critical health condition was urgently evacuated via helicopter, with her partner, to Malta. The remaining 421 survivors onboard Ocean Viking were designated Augusta, Sicily, as a Place of Safety the following day. Prior to their disembarkation, all the remaining survivors onboard Ocean Viking were tested for Covid-19 by Italian health authorities: 48 positive cases were identified. All survivors were disembarked from the Ocean Viking in a two-day process, on February 8 and 9.
On February 5, the sailing vessel Astral of the NGO Proactiva–Open Arms also assisted in the rescue of 45 people, among them two women, one of whom pregnant, from a rubber boat in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. The survivors told the Astral rescue team that they had spent three days at sea before receiving assistance. They were eventually transferred on an Italian coastguard vessel and disembarked in Lampedusa.
Over 1,800 people illegally returned to a cycle of violence in Libya
Over 1,800 people attempting to flee Libya via the central Mediterranean were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan coastguard these past two weeks.
Between February 9 and 15, 318 people were intercepted and returned to Libya according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). On February 10 alone, more than 200 people were forcibly returned to Libya.
The previous week, 1,487 people had been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard. Most of these survivors “end up in detention and fall victim to horrific conditions, exploitation, abuse and trafficking” denounced Safa Msehli, IOM spokesperson. Following an interception on February 5, UNHCR reported two bodies being retrieved and accounts of three persons missing.
In the month of January, 469 people had been intercepted and returned to Libya, according to IOM, while 81 people are known to have died or disappeared.
Picture credits: Hippolyte / SOS MEDITERRANEE