[Eyes on the Central Med #14] Two weekends, one acute crisis: multiple distress alerts, shipwrecks, rescues and an alarming number of forced returns to Libya 

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.

The past two weekends (February 19 – 21 and February 26 – 28) have seen multiple flight attempts from people departing from Libya onboard unseaworthy boats and an acute crisis observed by civil aerial and maritime search and rescue (SAR) assets in the central Mediterranean and by international organisations in Libya. An alarming record number of boats have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and people forcibly brought back to Libya in the same period.

Timeline of a chaotic weekend in the central Mediterranean: February 19 – 21

Multiple boats in distress were spotted by civil aircraft Moonbird of Sea Watch and Colibri 2 of Pilotes Volontaires that weekend. They also witnessed multiple interceptions by the Libyan coastguard. Civil hotline Alarm Phone also tweeted about multiple distress calls and delays in rescue interventions by state actors.

The Aita Mari of the Basque NGO Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario rescued 102 people from a wooden boat in distress in the Maltese search and rescue region (SRR) on February 19. The Aita Mari then encountered another wooden boat in distress with approximately 46 people onboard. The rescuers provided lifejackets and food to the people onboard as they could not bring more people onboard their ship. The 102 survivors were eventually assigned Augusta, Sicily, as a Place of Safety and disembarked on February 22 and 23.

In the night between February 19 and 20, a wooden boat capsized off Lampedusa during the transfer of people onboard to Italian coastguard and Guardia di Finanza boats, the Italian coastguard reported to the media. 47 people were rescued while a search operation was conducted for at least 5 people missing.

Pilotes Volontaires reported on a rescue conducted by the Italian coastguard of a boat in distress they had spotted near Italian shores on February 21. Survivors were disembarked in Lampedusa. Mediterraneo cronaca reported that a baby was born on what could be the same dinghy.

Newspaper Malta Today said a dinghy that departed from Libya with 55 people onboard reached Malta autonomously on Sunday 21.

Two commercial vessels operating on the oil platforms off Libya were involved in rescue operations that weekend.

The Vos Triton rescued 77 people and recovered one dead body. A medical evacuation was conducted off Lampedusa and the remaining survivors eventually disembarked in Porto Empedocle, Sicily (La Stampa). Upon disembarkation, a UNHCR team gathered testimonies confirming that at least 41 people, from the 120 people onboard the dinghy they were on before being rescued, drowned and are missing. An investigation into what happened after the rescue was launched by the Agrigento (Sicily) prosecutor’s office: the ship went north after reportedly heading towards Libya, which is not a Place of Safety for the disembarkation of survivors according to maritime law. According to La Stampa and the first elements of the Agrigento prosecutor’s investigation, “there is no evidence of insurrection on board the Vos Triton”, as previously reported, but “only evident disappointment on the part of the shipwrecked people when they learned the news of their return to Libya”.

The Asso 30 also disembarked survivors in Porto Empedocle, Sicily. The ship had rescued 232 people and also recovered one body on board.

157 people were rescued by the Tunisian coastguard from two boats. Two bodies were retrieved.

The islands of Lampedusa, Pantelleria and Sardinia saw several autonomous arrivals of boats which departed from Algeria, Libya or Tunisia (see Mediterraneo cronaca’s articles online).

Frontex said their airplanes spotted nine boats in distress in the central Mediterranean that weekend. In tweets, the agency said it “alerted and provided regular updates to all national rescue centres in the area”. One of the boats was reportedly rescued by a fishing boat. In their tweets, Frontex did not provide information on where the people were disembarked after alerting authorities to these boats.

According to IOM Libya, 1,315 people were forcibly returned to Libya and at least 6 bodies retrieved in the period between February 16 and 22. As part of these interceptions, at least 6 deaths were reported and 5 people missing. Higher numbers of dead and missing people are feared. Pilotes Volontaires released a video of a critical interception by the Libyan coastguard they witnessed on February 21, with at least 20 people in the water.

Timeline of a chaotic weekend in the central Mediterranean: February 26 – 28

On Friday 19, the Sea Watch 3 left the port of Burriana, Spain, heading for the central Mediterranean seven months after being detained by Italian authorities. The Sea Watch 3 rescued 363 people from 5 boats in distress between February 26 and 28. The Sea Watch crew assisted a sixth boat in distress stabilising the situation until the Italian coastguard eventually completed the rescue and brought the approximately 90 survivors to Lampedusa. Other arrivals were reported to have occurred in Lampedusa this weekend.

The Sea Watch 3 has been assigned Augusta, Sicily, as a Place of Safety by Italian authorities for the disembarkation of the 363 survivors.

In the meantime, deadly shipwrecks keep occurring off Libya. According to IOM Libya, at least 15 people died in a shipwreck off Libya, according to 95 returnees, that same weekend. According to Alarm Phone, the people onboard this boat called them asking for support a few miles off the Libyan shore and an intervention by the Libyan coastguard was delayed.

According to IOM Libya, 443 people were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya between February 23 and March 1st, bringing to 4,029 the number of people returned to Libya this year -a third of the total of returnees recorded in 2020.

On March 2nd, UNHCR reported on yet another interception and return of 100 people to Libya two days after they departed.

Suspension of Sea Watch 4’s detention, Ocean Viking in port call in Marseille

On March 2nd, Sea Watch announced that the administrative court in Palermo preliminarily suspended the detention of the Sea-Watch 4 pending the decision of the European Court of Justice on the matter. After seven months of blockade, the ship will prepare to go back to sea as soon as possible.

The Ocean Viking has arrived in Marseille, France, on March 1st for a port call following two weeks of quarantine undergone by our teams onboard as per the Italian health authorities’ request after the latest disembarkation of survivors in Augusta, Sicily. We plan on going back to sea as soon as possible following some maintenance and resupply.

Photo credits: Hippolyte / SOS MEDITERRANEE