[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #20] Recurring reports of shipwrecks, rescues, interceptions and arrivals put Search and Rescue in the Central Mediterranean back on EU’s agenda

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.

SAR NGOs active in the Central Mediterranean save hundreds of lives while administrative blockades continue

On May 13, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced its return to search and rescue activities with a new ship, the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents. On May 24, the crew rescued three persons in the Gibraltar strait who were later transferred on a coast guard ship as requested by Spanish maritime authorities.

After being granted free pratique by the Port Health Authority of Augusta on May 16, Ocean Viking reached a shipyard in Napoli on May 25 to undergo a drydock.
Aita Mari of the Spanish collective Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario is currently patrolling in the Central Mediterranean. After searching for a distress alert sent by Alarm Phone on May 23, they communicated that two Maltese merchant ships had been assisting the rubber boat until the Tunisian Navy intervened to bring the approximatively 95 people back to Sfax , Tunisia.

During its first mission at sea, Sea-Eye 4 rescued 415 people in six operations within 48 hours, between May 15 and May 17. Among the survivors, 150 were minors. The Sea-Eye 4 was instructed to disembark the survivors in Pozzallo by the Italian authorities on May 19. The disembarkation of the survivors was completed on May 22. The crew is now undergoing a 14-day quarantine in the port of Pozzallo as per the request of Italian health authorities.

On May 19, Sea-Watch 4 ended her quarantine – and is now moored at Trapani port facing administrative detention – and Sea-Watch 3 left Sicily after 59 days of blockade with a single voyage permit towards a shipyard in Spain.

At least 67 deaths off Libyan shores in the past two weeks and more than 9,659 forced returns this year

Several shipwrecks are known to have occurred in the past two weeks. On May 13, 150 people were intercepted and returned to Libya. According to two Nigerien survivors, 17 people were missing and must be assumed to have drowned, said the International Organization for Migration (IOM). On May 15, local fishermen rescued 62 people in distress off Khoms but dozens of people are missing according to Alarm Phone. On May 18, a shipwreck occurred off Sfax, Tunisia. At least 50 people went missing according to the 33 survivors, all from Bangladesh. They had departed on May 16 from Zwara, Libya.

Numerous interceptions by the Libyan coastguard have also been reported. On May 16 alone, over 650 persons were returned to Tripoli. Two days later, more than 300 persons were returned to the same port on May 18 according to the UNHCR. On May 18, according to Alarm Phone , a boat carrying around 88 people was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard while its last position showed the boat in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. According to Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the IOM , out of the more than 8,000 persons intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya in 2021, only 4,000 are in official detention centres while “thousands are missing“.

On May 17, the Tunisian navy rescued more than 100 people off the island of Djerba, the defence ministry said. Survivors reported that the boat was deflated and 47 of them ended up in the water before being rescued.

Repeated calls for European search and rescue capacities and relocations

On May 17, Ireland has agreed to relocate ten people out of the approximately 2,100 that had reached Italian shores the previous week, becoming the first and so far only European country to respond to a call for solidarity from Rome and the European Commission. A week earlier, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi reported discussions with France and Germany to try to revive the Malta agreement on relocations. On May 19, following a meeting with SAR NGOs among which SOS MEDITERRANEE, the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli called for Europe to “prepare a major rescue initiative at sea and a common reception policy, worthy of its history.” On May 24, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said that the European Contact Group of Member States on search and rescue will meet again before the summer to ensure a dialogue with SAR NGOs as well as commercial vessels and EU and international agencies. On May 26, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office issued a report named “Lethal Disregard: Search and rescue and the protection of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea”. In reaction, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the European Union (EU) and Libya to change their practices in the Mediterranean Sea. ” The report calls on “the Libyan authorities, EU Member States and institutions, and other relevant actors to take determined and effective action to deploy SAR operations, support the work of humanitarian NGOs, and to adopt a common and human rights-based arrangement for the timely disembarkation of all people rescued at sea.”, explains Mirage News .

Salvini and Rackete charges dismissed as Maltese government is under investigation for paying Libya to conduct pushbacks

Charges against Matteo Salvini for delaying the disembarkation of survivors from the Italian Coast Guard vessel Gregoretti in 2019 have been dropped. According to the judge, there are no elements to open first instance proceedings. Mr. Salvini is, however, to stand trial in Palermo for the Open Arms case.

On May 20, investigations against the former Captain of Sea Watch 3 Carola Rackete have been dismissed. Prosecutors in Agrigento, Sicily, had declared she acted out of necessity with a duty to bring the people on her ship to safety.

On May 19, the former maltese Office of Prime Minister official Neville Gafá has claimed that he was “operating under Libyan jurisdiction” when he coordinated a pushback of migrants at Malta’s request on Easter Sunday last year. Carmelo Grech, the owner of the Libyan-flagged fishing vessel Dar Es Salaam 1 has also revealed that the Maltese government paid for pushbacks multiple times.

Surge of arrivals on European shores

Between May 17 and 18, an unprecedented surge of arrivals was recorded in the enclave of Ceuta, Spain, with nearly 9,000 persons , arriving via the sea from Morocco. According to the Spanish authorities, 7,500 people have been sent back to Morocco. Two people died by drowning while trying to reach Ceuta, while a young Moroccan who tried to hang himself on Friday was narrowly saved.

According to a new report from Frontex , the number of people crossing the Central Mediterranean doubled in April to almost 1 550 compared to a year ago. Between January and April of this year, the total number of crossings on this route more-than-doubled to 11 600.


Cover photo: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE