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[Eyes on the central Med #16] Start of EU discussions on search and rescue amid mass forced returns to Libya, continued loss of life and insufficient rescue capacity

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.

2021: a record year for interceptions and forced returns in the central Med so far

The number of people intercepted and forcibly brought back to Libya by the Libyan coastguard, trained and equipped by the European Union, has skyrocketed since the beginning of the year. This trend was witnessed again in the past two weeks by UN agencies and non-governmental organisations working at sea or in Libya, when weather and sea conditions were favourable to the departure of boats from the Libyan shore.

Last weekend, within 48 hours, nearly 1,000 people were intercepted and forcibly returned to the country they were fleeing from according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya -a practice that is contrary to maritime law as people rescued at sea must be disembarked in a Place of Safety, which Libyan ports cannot be considered as in the current context. Most of these people -men, women and children- faced arbitrary detention upon return.

These new mass interceptions bring to around 5,000 the number of people intercepted in 2021 -nearly half of the number of people intercepted in 2020 as a whole.

The NGO Pilotes Volontaires, flying the Colibri 2 aircraft, as well as Sea-Watch and their airplane Seabird, have spotted several of these boats in distress on March 27, 28 and 29. They reported having witnessed several interceptions by the Libyan coastguard. Civil hotline Alarm Phone reported numerous distress calls as well. New interceptions and forced returns as well as a shipwreck claiming the lives of at least five people on March 30 was also reported by IOM’s spokesperson Safa Msehli.

“Autonomous” landings of boats departed from Tunisia or Libya, on the islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria, have been reported by Italian media over the last few days as well.

335 people rescued by two NGO ships

The NGO ship Open Arms rescued 219 people from three boats in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region (SRR) on March 27 and 29. A medical evacuation was performed by the Italian coastguard on March 30 for a pregnant woman and her brother. The Open Arms is now waiting for a Place of Safety to be assigned by authorities for the 217 survivors onboard.

Our crew onboard the Ocean Viking rescued 116 people in two separate operations in the Libyan SRR on March 18 and 20. Two-thirds of the survivors were minors, including 51 unaccompanied by a parent or a legal guardian. More information on these rescues can be found on our online logbook: http://onboard.sosmediterranee.org/.

All survivors were allowed to disembark in a Place of Safety in Augusta, Italy, on March 23, following COVID-19 tests performed by our crew and subsequently by Italian health authorities onboard. Six survivors tested positive for COVID-19 with rapid tests. The Ocean Viking is now undergoing a 14-day quarantine in the port of Augusta as per the request of Italian health authorities.

On March 18, the Ocean Viking was alerted by civil hotline Alarm Phone to a rubber boat which reportedly caught fire. Our ship searched for this boat but could not locate it. We were then informed by the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) that the Libyan coastguard intercepted a boat in territorial waters, with 45 people brought back to Libya and 5 missing. Alarm Phone later reported that, from witness testimony, up to 60 people would have in fact gone missing in the course of this tragic event.

European meetings underscore the urgency of implementing new sustainable approaches

Two weeks ago, five southern European states met in Athens, Greece, calling for the “solidarity” of other EU Member States in managing migrant reception through the implementation of predictable solutions instead of ad-hoc ones.

The following week, EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson launched the first meeting of the new European Contact Group on Search and Rescue announced last September as part of the Pact on Migration and Asylum, in the Commission Recommendation on Search and Rescue. In her opening speech, she called among other things for a “need of enhanced coordination and cooperation between the vessels carrying rescued persons and national authorities”.

In a blog publication, Commissioner Johansson also stated: “Non-governmental organisations are operating ships with the goal to save people at sea. Last year, these NGO ships rescued in total 3,597 people from the water. I applaud their efforts”. “[Taking] the first steps towards a European approach on search and rescue”, involving all stakeholders, is a long-awaited task which SOS MEDITERRANEE and other civil and private actors have been calling for, for several years. Keeping this dialogue open and constructive is urgent for further tragedies to be avoided in the near future.

Following a new inspection of the Sea-Watch 3 by the Italian coastguard on March 21, the NGO ship, which disembarked 363 survivors in Augusta in the beginning of March, was held in administrative detention for the second time in ten months. A decision that Sea-Watch contests as politically motivated while waiting for a decision by the European Court of Justice on the matter of Port State Controls repeatedly conducted onboard their ships.

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Photo credits: Anthony Jean / SOS MEDITERRANEE