[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #23] Death toll rises in central Med amid continued administrative blockages of search and rescue ships and skyrocketing forced returns to Libya.

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 570 people rescued by the Ocean Viking amid a continued absence of coordination by maritime authorities. 

Between July 1st and 5th, the SOS MEDITERRANEE team onboard the Ocean Viking rescued 573* people from six boats in distress in the Maltese and Libyan Search and Rescue Regions, amid a continued absence of coordination and information-sharing by maritime authorities. Among the survivors were one pregnant woman and over 150 minors, including two with disabilities. Most survivors came from Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, South Sudan, Libya and Sudan (North). One of the rescue operations was the largest performed by the Ocean Viking since the start of her lifesaving mission two years ago: 369 men, women and children were found crammed in a large wooden boat, previously spotted by Pilotes Volontaires’ Colibri 2 aircraft. Such large unseaworthy wooden boats launched from the coast of Libya had not been encountered by SOS MEDITERRANEE teams in several years.  

After a four-day stand-off and tensions rising on the deck of the Ocean Viking, – with a man jumping overboard out of desperation and recovered by our rescue team–, the survivors were finally allowed to disembark in Augusta, Sicily. The disembarkation process lasted two days and was completed on July 10. According to Associated Press, the European Commission welcomed Italy’s decision to allocate a Place of Safety and said it was prepared to coordinate a voluntary relocation of the survivors to other European countries. Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz urged EU member states to step up “in a spirit of solidarity and shared responsibility”. So far, only Luxembourg has offered to relocate a share of the 573 survivors. 


Detention of the MSF ship the Geo Barents: most SAR NGO vessels continue to be hindered from operating. 

Following her first lifesaving mission in the central Mediterranean where she rescued 410 people, the MSF ship Geo Barents was put under administrative detention by the Italian maritime authorities in the first days of July. According to the organisation, “the Italian authorities dispute the ship’s suitability to carry out systematic search and rescue activities and allege that the ship had too many people on board.” MSF denounces a “disingenuous interpretation of maritime law” disregarding the fact that rescue operations, as per the duty of ship masters to provide assistance to people in distress at sea, are considered force majeure situations.  

On June 25, after over two months of blockage, the Open Arms was released from administrative detention and is now docked in Burriana, Spain, for maintenance. 

Despite this positive news, most SAR NGO vessels remain currently hindered from operating in the central Mediterranean. The Ocean Viking was the only SAR NGO ship at sea these past two weeks. Since she left, there are no SAR NGOs present in the Search and Rescue Regions of the central Mediterranean.  


Amid continuous surge of interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard, a violent and dangerous interception witnessed by a Sea-Watch’s aircraft. 

Since our latest “Eyes on the central Med” published three weeks ago, over 1,600 people in distress at sea have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard. Almost 950 women, children and men were intercepted between June 27 and July 3 only. The SOS MEDITERRANEE team onboard the Ocean Viking found five empty wooden boats, between July 1st and 3rd, that had been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. Those intercepted by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard are returned to an unspeakable cycle of violence and abuse, even though international institutions state that Libya cannot be considered a place of safety. These forced and unlawful returns must stop urgently.  

Furthermore, a video published on July 1st by Sea-Watch shows a violent and dangerous attempt of interception. A Libyan patrol vessel is filmed firing shots towards a boat in distress, making it close to capsizing multiple times, in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. Following the release of this video, prosecutors in Sicily are seeking permission from the Italian foreign ministry to launch a probe into these events, looking into allegations of “attempted shipwreck”. According to Avvenire, the Libyan Coast Guard also opened an internal investigation recognising that the Libyan patrol vessel had been “endangering lives [of migrants in distress], as well as those of the crew members of the patrol boat itself.” According to Avvenire, it was also the first time that a Libyan Coast Guard vessel went that far north in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region, over 110 miles away from the port of Tripoli and only 45 miles from Lampedusa.   

A report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, focused on “means to address the human rights impact of pushbacks of migrants on land and at sea” was recently presented during the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The report states that “pushbacks result in human rights violations incompatible with States’ obligations under international human rights law, in particular, the prohibition of collective expulsion and refoulement.”   


Autonomous arrivals among reports of tragic shipwrecks off the Tunisian, Libyan and Italian coasts and bodies washing up on Libyan shores. 

Five known shipwrecks off Tunisia, Libya and Italy claimed at least 78 lives these past weeks. In two shipwrecks reported off Tunisia and Libya on July 12, at least 20 people are known to have died. On July 3rd, no less than 43 persons were reported to have perished off the coast of Tunisia in an attempt to cross the central Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, while another 84 were rescued. Eight other deceased persons were found in a boat that had sank off Sfax the day before, – 13 survivors who were on the same boat were rescued by the Tunisian navy. These tragic events occurred only few days after a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa claimed the lives of at least seven women who are known to have drowned while ten other persons have been reported missing.  

According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 30 bodies were retrieved on Libyan shores since June 20th. Such a grim countdown of continued tragedies is a reminder of the deadly absence of an effective and lawful State-led Search and Rescue operation in the central Mediterranean.  Today, the IOM released the report “Migrant deaths on maritime routes to Europe in 2021″. The report states that “the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the first six months of 2021 increased by 58 per cent compared to the same period in 2020”. The number of deaths among those attempting the crossing more than doubled during the first half of 2021 in comparison to the same period last year.

Today, the Times of Malta reported that three out of 87 people died on a dinghy that was adrift in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region for at least a day. 84 people were rescued by the Maltese Armed Forces late on Tuesday night after Alarm Phone had alerted to the distress case early on Tuesday morning. The deaths possibly resulted from dehydration, exhaustion and heatstroke. An autopsy and an investigation into the case has been launched by Maltese authorities.

In the past days, despite being overcrowded and critically unseaworthy, some boats in distress managed to arrive close to Italian shores and were rescued by Italian maritime authorities or arrived autonomously.  On July 13, seven dinghies were reported to have landed within few hours, with a total of 104 people coming from Tunisia. Over 550 people were reported to have reached the Island of Lampedusa on July 7 on four different boats. One of the rescued boats, a fishing vessel, was carrying 420 men, women and children. 

* During the disembarkation of survivors in Augusta, Sicily, the Italian authorities counted 573 survivors (not 572 as previously registered by the SOS MEDITERRANEE team onboard Ocean Viking).


Cover Picture: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE