Cover picture eyes on the central Mediterranean

[Eyes on the central Med #15] UN warns about an average of 3 deaths per day in the central Med as Council of Europe sends a “distress call”

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.

An update on the situation at sea

At least 39 people died after two boats capsized off Tunisia on March 9. According to a joint statement by IOM and UNHCR issued in the aftermath of these tragic events, 134 survivors of one of the shipwrecks were brought to shore by the Tunisian coastguard and 70 from the second shipwreck. In this statement, the UN organisations called “for proactive search and rescue in the most dangerous sea crossing in the world, and the establishment of clear and safe disembarkation for people rescued at sea.” They also underscored the fact that three people die in the central Mediterranean on average per day this year.

On the same day (March 9), the Italian coastguard and the Guardia di Finanza rescued 187 people from three boats off Lampedusa. The day before, a sailing boat with 112 people who departed from Turkey reportedly arrived autonomously in the Puglia region.

Three bodies were retrieved from the water and brought back to Libya on March 10 and 11, according to IOM Libya. No interceptions or forced returns were reported by international organisations present at disembarkation points in Libya these past two weeks. 232 people are reported to have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean by IOM’s Missing Migrants project since the beginning of the year.

Following a port call and a self-isolation period for the crew, the Ocean Viking and our rescue, medical and survivor care teams have left the port of Marseille on March 10 and conducted drills on their way to the central Mediterranean Sea. The Open Arms of NGO Proactiva-Open Arms set sail from Barcelona heading toward the central Mediterranean, on March 14.

The Council of Europe sends a “distress call” while breaches of international law by proxy and criminalisation of NGOs by EU Member States remain the norm

A distress call for human rights: The widening gap in migrant protection in the Mediterranean”, an important report by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, was released last week. This report follows up on recommendations the Commissioner made in 2019 regarding search and rescue at sea, with a focus on the central Mediterranean, providing a set of measures to be urgently taken by European states to “ensure a human rights compliant approach to sea crossings”. We deem it essential to share here the overall striking conclusions of this stock-taking exercise as shared in the press release accompanying this report:

This report stresses that, despite some limited progress, the human rights situation in the Mediterranean remains deplorable. Shipwrecks continue to be worryingly recurrent, with more than 2,400 registered deaths in the period under consideration, a number which may well under-represent the real tally of deadly incidents. The growing disengagement of states’ naval capacity from the Mediterranean and the hindrance of NGOs’ rescue activities, as well as decisions to delay disembarkation and failure to assign a safe port, have undermined the integrity of the search and rescue system. Co-operation activities with third countries have been enhanced despite the undeniable evidence of serious human rights violations, and without the implementation of human rights safeguards including transparency and accountability principles. On the Central Mediterranean route specifically, many developments appearing to be aimed at ‘clearing the field’ for interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard have become institutionalised, leading to almost 20,000 recorded returns to serious human rights violations in Libya”, wrote the Commissioner. “The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to the adoption of more restrictive measures, which have a direct negative impact on the human rights of migrants.

The Commissioner presented this report to the EU Parliament’s LIBE Committee (committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) on Monday 15, as part of a discussion on “people in distress at sea” in the central Mediterranean. The role of the EU in training and supporting the Libyan coastguard as well as the question of unlawful forced returns and lack of SAR coordination in the Libyan search and rescue region since its official creation in 2018 are key concerns that were addressed in the report and, more generally, by civil society actors.

In a previous LIBE Committee which occurred earlier this month (March 4), the Executive Director of Frontex (European border and coast guard agency) said Frontex airplanes had a legal obligation to coordinate with Libyan authorities when spotting a boat in distress while admitting that this is “not an optimal solution” and that the humanitarian situation in Libya is “not okay”.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Euronews on February 25, Fabio Agostini, head of Operation Irini which aims at implementing the UN arms embargo on Libya via air and maritime assets, said that the Libyan coastguard should be given more autonomy through more training in order to “stop illegal migration”. As a reminder, over 4,000 people (IOM) were intercepted at sea, mostly by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard, and forcibly returned to Libya -which is not a Place of Safety where survivors should be disembarked accordingly to maritime law- in 2021 alone.

Several investigations launched in Italy against NGOs and individuals conducting search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean four years ago have been completed, and charges of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” officially pressed, two weeks ago.

Several investigations launched in Italy against NGOs and individuals conducting search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean three to four years ago have been completed, and charges of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” officially pressed, two weeks ago.

A new investigation was simultaneously launched against the shipowner of the Mare Jonio (of the NGO Mediterranea), a ship which put an end to the longest stand-off in recent European maritime history last summer (a 37-day standoff off Malta, with no disembarkation solution in sight for 27 survivors onboard the Maersk Etienne commercial ship). Maritime company Maersk issued a statement showing strong support to the NGO on the matter.

Photo credits: Anthony Jean / SOS MEDITERRANEE