Cover photo Eyes on the Central Med

[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #21] Loss of life, blocked rescue ships and countless forced returns while commitment to relocations remains sparse

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.

Loss of life in the Central Mediterranean uninterrupted, at least 675 deaths this year

The death toll in the Central Mediterranean has further increased over the last two weeks, bringing the official number of deaths reported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Missing Migrants Project to 675 this year.

Last week, at least 23 people drowned in a shipwreck off Tunisia, according to the Tunisian Red Crescent as reported by Reuters. The Tunisian Navy rescued 70 of the more than 90 people that had departed from Libya. The same day, the Tunisian Navy rescued 39 people from another boat that sank off the coast of Sfax, Tunisia, Reuters further reported. Just a few days prior, 7 bodies had been recovered off the Tunisian island of Djerba.

On 31 May 2021, UNICEF announced that the bodies of three children washed ashore in Zuwara, Libya, as InfoMigrants reported.

According to Alarm Phone, two persons might have died on a boat that departed from Libya earlier this month. The boat reportedly ran out of fuel and drifted back to the Libyan shore. A relative of the survivors told Alarm Phone about the deaths on board. On 31 May 2021, Alarm Phone reported that a Libyan fisherman assisted a boat in distress. According to the fisherman, up to 16 are said to have died in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

Civil Search and Rescue simultaneously recognised and targeted as five NGO ships are blocked in Italy

The Sea Eye 4 is under a detention order since June 4th, following a 12-hour Port State Control in Palermo, Sicily. More than 400 people rescued at sea had previously been disembarked in Pozzallo, Sicily, by the Sea Eye 4. The ship was granted permission to sail to the port of Palermo during a mandatory quarantine for the crew.

The blockade of the Sea Eye 4 brings the number of civilian Search and Rescue ships currently under detention orders issues by Italian authorities to five: the Sea Watch 3 and 4, the Open Arms and the Alan Kurdi are also still under administrative detention. The Alan Kurdi and the Sea Watch 3 were temporarily granted authorisation to sail in order to reach a shipyard in Spain.

Last week, the Aita Mari was assigned a Place of Safety in Augusta for the 50 survivors rescued four days prior. The disembarkation took place on Monday, all survivors and crew tested negative to COVID-19. The Aita Mari subsequently was granted permission to sail to Burriana, Spain, the next day, without having to quarantine in the port of Augusta.

In Denmark, the crew of civil SAR NGO Mediterranea’s Mare Jonio and the crew of tanker Maersk Etienne were awarded the Maritime Price by Danish Shipping, Denmark’s shipowner and offshore companies association. The crews were recognized for assisting 27 people in distress who ended up spending 38 days on board the Maersk Etienne last summer without being assigned a Place of Safety, until the crew of Mare Jonio transshipped the survivors and was allowed to disembark in an Italian port. Meanwhile, investigations targeting the Mediterranea crew upon allegations of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” and “violating the rules of the Code of Navigation” are ongoing in Italy.

Number of interceptions by Libyan Coast Guard in six months in 2021 to reach total of 2020

In the period of 23-29 May and of 30 May-5 June, a total of 1,052 people were intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard. This brings the number of people forcibly returned to Libya to more than 10,711 this year. By comparison, the total number of people forcibly returned by the Libyan Coast Guard for all of 2020 was just below 12,000. According to Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), out of the more than 10,000 people intercepted this year and taken back to detention, only half remain in these centers. “This broken system is an abomination”, she said. Between May 28 and May 31 alone, at least than 822 people were returned to Tripoli by Libyan Coast Guard according to the UNHCR. The crew of Geo Barents, rescue ship chartered and operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), witnessed interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard both on May 31 and June 1st. On June 8, 59 people were also returned to Libya.

More than 260 people were intercepted by the Tunisian Coast Guard and the Tunisian Navy on May 28, as InfoMigrants reported. The people had departed from Libya and Tunisia in an attempt to reach European shores.

Italian government meet with search and rescue NGOs while the Malta agreement remains obstructed

On May 28, Italian representatives of Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs Emergency, MSF, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Open Arms, ResQ-People saving People, Sea-Watch and SOS MEDITERRANEE met with the Italian Minister of the Interior Luciana Lamorgese, mainly asking for the establishment of an effective European search and rescue mechanism as well as an end to the criminalisation of civil search and rescue activities. The Italian government, in turn, insisted on the need for the respective Flag States of Civilian SAR assets to assist in the provision of safe ports for disembarkation and in relocating survivors after disembarkation, as La Repubblica reported. So far, calls made in early May for EU states to help relocate people reaching Italian shores have been only answered by Ireland and Lithuania as they agreed to relocate 10 people each. Luxembourg has also offered to help.

Several bilateral meetings have been held between European High Representatives and third-party countries to discuss migration and border controls in Tunisia, Libya, Italy and France during the past week. On May 31st, during a meeting with Abdelhamid Dabaiba – Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity of Libya – Mario Draghi, Prime Minister of Italy, said that its country will continue to do its part in terms of resources and training ability, but determined and rapid action by the European Union is needed” and announced that the topic of migration will be tackled again at the European Council in June. On his part, Prime Minister Dabaiba thanked Italy and the EU “for all their efforts and the great support they have given us, and the great work of the Italian Coast Guard.”