Cover Photo Eyes on the Central Med

[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #19] Humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean triggers calls for European action as shipwrecks, arrivals in Italy and forced returns surge

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.

Over 700 people rescued by NGO and navy ships disembark in Sicily

On April 30, the port of Augusta, Sicily, was assigned as Place of Safety for the 236 people rescued by the Ocean Viking from two rubber dinghies in internationals waters off Libya on April 27. All survivors were tested for COVID-19 by Italian health authorities before completing disembarkation on May 1st. The Ocean Viking crew is now undergoing a 14-day quarantine in the port of Augusta as per the request of Italian health authorities. In their latest mission at sea, SOS MEDITERRANEE teams witnessed the devastating consequences of an ever-worsening catastrophe, with a shipwreck leaving no survivors, a simultaneous rescue of two overloaded dinghies, several interceptions by the Libyan coastguard – and a dire lack of coordination and information-sharing from maritime authorities to our ship.

On April 30, 49 people were rescued by the Italian Navy ship Foscari, in international waters north of Tripoli. This was reportedly the first rescue conducted by an Italian military ship in the central Mediterranean in months. They disembarked in Pozzallo, Sicily, on May 1st.

The Sea Watch 4 of German NGO Sea Watch, whose detention had been suspended by an interim measure of Palermo administrative court, left for her second mission on April 23. The crew rescued 455 people in 6 rescues between April 28 and May 1st. The Sea Watch 4 witnessed several interceptions and forced returns by the Libyan coastguard as well. The port of Trapani, Sicily, was assigned as Place of Safety for the 455 people onboard the Sea Watch 4.

Administrative detention of Sea Watch 4, return to sea of the Aita Mari and 1st mission of Sea Eye 4

On May 8, the administrative detention of the Sea Watch 4 suspended in March was reinstated. This was ordered by the Council of Administrative Justice for the Sicilian Region (Cgars), reforming the decision of the Regional Administrative Tribunal for Sicily, which had examined and accepted the request for suspension of the detention of the ship.

The same day, the Aita Mari of the Spanish collective Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario left the port of Adra, Almeria. Underway, the crew spotted a boat in distress with 16 people onboard at the height of Cartagena. The Aita Mari crew reported the distress case to the Spanish rescue authority Salvamento Maritimo with a subsequent rescue conducted by the rescue vessel, Guardamar Caliope.

Still on May 8, the Sea Eye 4, the new ship of NGO Sea Eye, left the port of Burriana, Spain, heading to the Central Mediterranean for the first time. In the meantime, the Alan Kurdi, which had her detention suspended by the administrative court of Olbia, left Sardinia for a shipyard in Spain.

At least 40 deaths off Libyan shores and more than 7500 forced returns this year

On Monday, May 10, 42 survivors of a shipwreck that claimed the lives of up to 24 people were returned to Tripoli by the Libyan coastguard. One body was recovered and 23 people are missing, according to the UNHCRAlarm Phone had relayed a distress alert to this boat earlier the same day.

More than 1500 people were intercepted by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard and forcibly returned to Libyan shores in the past fourteen days, according to the IOMMore than 700 were intercepted on Sunday, May 9 alone. That same day, at least five people drowned when the dinghy they were trying to flee Libya on capsized off the coast. Among the victims of this shipwreck is a child.

The majority of people who are disembarked in Libya after forced returns end up arbitrarily detained in on of Libya’s infamous detention centers. More than 7500 people were intercepted as they tried to flee Libya this year, while less than 2500 people were forcibly returned over the same period last year.

Earlier this month, on May 2, at least eleven people died in a shipwreck off Zawiya, Libya. The Libyan Coast Guard rescued 12 survivors. Little is known about a reported shipwreck the same day that might have claimed up to fifty lives according to the Libyan Red Crescent, as reported by Al Arabiya.

Good weather windows lead to surge in arrivals to Lampedusa

Over 2000 people on at least 20 boats reached Lampedusa over the past weekend while hundreds were reported in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. More than 300 people reached the port autonomously on a large wooden boat just hours before the Italian Coast Guard brought to shore nearly 500 people from a single iron fishing boat that was drifting off the island on Sunday, as mediterranea cronaca reported. According to journalist Angela Caponnetto, 2000 people were at the hotspot in Lampedusa on Monday, May 10, as landings continued.

During the same weekend, Alarm Phone relayed alerts to six boats in distress in the Central Mediterranean. According to the NGO, more than 400 people were in distress at sea on Sunday night. While it has not been possible to confirm the fate of all of them yet, one of the boats is known to have shipwrecked on Sunday afternoon and two might have reached Lampedusa.

Approximately 70 people were rescued by a patrol boat of the Maltese Armed Forces and disembarked in Malta on Tuesday, May 11, as Reuters reports. Alarm Phone had first relayed a distress alert to this boat the night before.

Italian offshore supply vessel Asso30, normally stationed at the Bouri oil platform in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region, also conducted a rescue. Approximately 20 persons, some of whom injured, were disembarked in Lampedusa on Tuesday, May 11, Angela Caponnetto reports.

On the first weekend of May, a short window of good weather also allowed for departures. As ANSA reports, 532 people reached Lampedusa on four boats during the night from April 31 to May 1, with one boat carrying 297 people of sub-Saharan origin.

Calls for European action and solidarity arise: a return to the Malta agreement on relocations?

Reacting to the latest events in the Central Mediterranean, both the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that they are deeply concerned about the situation in the Central Mediterranean as the death toll has increased of more than 200 per cent this year in comparison with the same period last year.  Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson for the Mediterranean at IOM, asked the EU for “an efficient patrol system, safe landings, clarity on internal relocations. But first of all to strengthen the presence of European ships to reduce the number of those who are returned to the Libyan hell.”

In a press point on May 10, following a meeting with the High Commissioner for Refugees and a discussion with the Italian Interior Minister, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson called EU Member States to show solidarity with Italy through the reestablishment of the system of relocations of people arriving on southern European shores across voluntary EU Member States in order to meet the needs linked to recent arrivals in Lampedusa. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi insisted on the need for “more and more predictable, more efficient State-led mechanism to rescue people at sea” and for “a predictable mechanism for disembarkation and relocation”. The EU’s executive said on Tuesday it had not yet received pledges from EU countries to relocate persons who recently disembarked in Italy.

On May 11, a conference on migration management was held in Lisbon under the Portuguese Presidency of the EU Council. Progress in enforcing solidarity mechanisms proposed in the Pact for Migration and Asylum presented by the EU Commission last September has been slow, said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, as Italy emphasized again the need for the reestablishment of the Malta agreement on relocations.


Cover photo: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE