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[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #22] Alarming reports of continuous abuse of migrants in Libya while number of forced returns reaches record high

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.

Amid reports on abuse of detained migrants in Libya, number of forced returns reaches record high

More than 14,000 people have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and forcibly returned to Libya so far this year. On 13 June alone, more than 1000 people were intercepted at sea and brought back to Libyan shores, a record number of forced returns in a single day.

Sea Watch’s aircraft Seabird witnessed an interception by the Libyan Coast Guard in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region on June 12. In the two days prior, the IOM and the UNHCR had reported that 200 and 450 people respectively had been intercepted and returned to Libya. Last week, another 260 people faced the same fate, all of whom were sent to detention, according to the IOM.

Meanwhile, reports detailing abuse of girls in Libyan detention centeres have surfaced. Multiple girls and young women reported to AFP (via France24) and Associated Press having been sexually abused by guards both at official and unofficial detention centres in Libya. One of the women reported that she fell into the hands of militiamen after being intercepted at sea.

Yesterday, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced a temporary suspension of their activities in two detention centres in Tripoli following „repeated incidents of violence towards refugees and migrants“. These incidents of violence included indiscriminate beatings, physical and verbal abuse by guards and the firing of automatic weapons, as well as the denial of access to critically ill persons for medical personnel. MSF called for an end to the practice of arbitrarily detaining refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in inhumane conditions in Libya.

Lack of lawful SAR coordination means people rescued by merchant vessels do not always reach a place of safety

On June 12, merchant vessel Ugur Dadayli rescued 97 people from distress to the Southeast of Lampedusa. The rescue was reportedly coordinated by the Maltese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. The rescued people were transhipped to a Maltese Navy or Coast Guard vessel and disembarked in Malta the same night.

Two days later, more than 180 survivors rescued by merchant vessel VOS Triton in international waters in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region were handed over to the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya. Sea Watch aircraft Seabird monitored the scene and witnessed several people jumping from the wooden boat in distress to reach the merchant vessel by swimming. In reaction to the incident, IOM and UNHCR issued a joint press release emphasizing that “maritime actors should not be obliged to return refugees and migrants to unsafe places” and calling on States “to coordinate so that merchant vessels rescuing people in distress are granted swift permission for disembarkation in a place of safety”.

In addition to the boat intercepted by VOS Triton on June 14, Seabird spotted 9 other boats in distress. According to Sea-Watch, at least one boat in distress was intercepted and the survivors returned to Libya while 2 other boats were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. Frontex stated having spotted 19 boats carrying a total of 800 people through aerial surveillance in the Central Mediterranean over the weekend of June 12 and 13.

More than 1000 people on 16 boats reached Lampedusa autonomously or were rescued just off the island that same weekend, Mediterranea Cronaca reports. Throughout the past week, Italian media has been reporting further arrivals to Lampedusa and the region of Calabria.

Presence of NGO ships proves vital again while President of EU Parliament calls for European SAR mission

Civil rescue ships continue to be a vital presence in the central Mediterranean. The crew on Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) rescue ship Geo Barents conducted a total of seven rescues in less than 48 hours, rescuing a total of 410 men, women and children between June 10 and 12. Five days after the last rescue, the ship was assigned Augusta, Sicily, as a place of safety to disembark the survivors. Several of the people rescued by MSF recounted being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in previous attempts to flee Libya across the central Mediterranean.

Sailboat Nadir of German NGO ResQship assisted 86 persons on a wooden boat in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. While the Nadir stayed with the boat in distress, the Libyan Coast Guard arrived on the scene to return the shipwrecked persons to Libya, but the survivors were eventually transhipped to an Italian Coast Guard vessel that brought them to safety in Italy.

A civil court in Ragusa, Sicily, has suspended the penalty order against Claus-Peter Reisch, Captain of Mission Lifeline’s Eleonore. The confiscation of the Eleonore has also been suspended.

On June 14, in an opening speech of a high-level interparliamentary conference on managing migration and asylum in Europe, the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli emphasized the duty to save lives at sea and the need for a European search and rescue mission, stating “I believe it is our duty first of all to save lives. It is no longer acceptable to leave this responsibility only to NGOs.” A day earlier, Pope Francis warned that the Mediterranean had become the “biggest cemetery in Europe”.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and ECRE published an action plan on June 16 including 20 recommendations for EU institutions and member states to protect people on the move along the central Mediterranean route. Among the points listed in the action plan is a call to ensure that NGOs are able to carry out their lifesaving operations, including through effective coordination by relevant authorities.