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[Eyes on the central Med #18] From bad to worse: Over 150 feared dead in two shipwrecks while forced returns to Libya continue

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.

Impossible to count the dead as loss of life continues in the Central Mediterranean

Despite the unstable weather conditions that bring sudden changes in sea conditions, people have had to continue attempting the dangerous crossing of the Central Mediterranean.

At least 40 people drowned in a shipwreck off Tunisia between Thursday, 15 April, and Friday, 16 April, the Tunisian coastguard confirmed. The boat had departed from the Tunisian city of Sfax in an attempt to reach Italian shores. Another boat that departed from Sfax the same day reached Lampedusa with 17 people on board, mediterranea cronaca reports. On April 20, some 45 people were rescued off Lampedusa by the Guardia di Finanza.

On April 21, a woman and a child died on an overcrowded rubber boat that was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard. 103 people were forcibly returned to Libya in that event.

A day later, on April 22, the team on Ocean Viking and the crew on a merchant vessel witnessed the aftermath of a shipwreck that claimed up to 130 lives in the Libyan Search and Rescue regions. After unsuccessfully searching for a different boat in distress all day on Wednesday, April 21, the Ocean Viking searched for this distress case together with three merchant ships, the M/V ALK, M/V MY ROSE and M/T VS LISBETH on Thursday. Two MAYDAY calls had been sent to all assets in the area on Wednesday night from an unidentified aircraft that we can now assume to have been a Frontex plane according to information provided by the European border and coast guard agency. On Thursday, all that could be found in the area was the half-sunk wreck of the rubber boat amid the bodies of some of the approximately 130 people who had been on it. Read the full recap of events and of the absence of coordination and information sharing from maritime authorities to the Ocean Viking here.

In reaction to the shipwreck of April 22, eight civil Search and Rescue organisations have publicly asked for a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to discuss alternatives to the current policies of non-coordination of sea rescue in the Central Mediterranean.

According to the International Organization for Migration, two dead bodies washed ashore in Libya on April 22. It is impossible to know where these two people lost their lives.

Almost 30 people reportedly reached Lampedusa on two boats that departed from Tunisia in the night from Sunday to Monday. Information on Ocean Viking rescue of 27 April to be added here.

On 27 April, the team onboard Ocean Viking rescued 236 men, women and children from two unseaworthy rubber boats that Alarm Phone initially relayed distress alerts to.

A day later, on 28 April, the team was prepared to launch a rescue operation for approximately 80 people in distress on a rubber boat when the Libyan Coast Guard arrived on the scene and proceeded to intercept the dinghy. When ordered to change course and leave the area, the Ocean Viking headed for a second boat in distress, which was also intercepted by LCG patrol vessel Fezzan. IOM Libya confirmed that a total of 108 people were forcibly returned to Libya. According to IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli, all of them were taken to detention centers, including the women and children.

Sea crossings from Turkey: More than 200 people rescued by Italian authorities

Another tragedy could be avoided when 119 people trying to reach Italy on a fishing vessel were rescued with the help of three Italian Coast Guard patrol boats, an Italian Coast guard aircraft and a merchant ship. The ship was escorted for more than 24 hours and finally towed to shore in the Calabria Region by the Coast Guard after its engine stalled and the vessel risked capsizing in very rough seas with up to 40 knots of wind. According to Avvenire, upon sighting the vessel in the Italian Search and Rescue Region, the Italian MRCC deployed the three patrol boats and aircraft and instructed a nearby merchant vessel to proceed to the distress case and establish contact. The survivors reportedly departed from Turkey.

Two sailboats carrying more than 100 people in total were rescued off the Southern Italian Salento and Apulia regions by Italian authorities, Rai News reports. Both boats had departed from Turkey, one of them had been travelling for six days at sea.

Sea Watch 4 and Sea Eye 4 mobilize as Open Arms faces administrative blockade in Sicily

The Sea Watch 4 of German NGO Sea Watch is underway to the Libyan Search and Rescue Region after departing from Burriana, Spain, last Friday. The Sea Watch 4 had been detained last summer after her first mission in the Central Mediterranean during which the team on board rescued more than 350 people from distress at sea. The detention has been suspended by an interim measure of a Sicilian administrative court.

A new civil rescue ship, the Sea Eye 4 which German NGO Sea Eye acquired with the cooperation of civil society alliance United4Rescue, is currently underway to Burriana, Spain, where she will be prepared for her first mission at sea.

Meanwhile, the Open Arms of Spanish NGO Proactiva-Open Arms received a detention order after a 17-hour Port State Control in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily on April 17.