[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #24] People in distress, shipwrecks, rescues and forced returns: news from the past two weeks in the central Mediterranean

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. 


203 people assisted by a SAR NGO ship and subsequently rescued by Italian coastguards, 3 NGO ships at sea

Between July 22 and 27, the sailing vessel Astral of Open Arms contributed to the rescue of 203 people. On July 24, the Astral especially reported having located and provided lifejackets to 17 people in distress on a fibreglass boat. They were transferred to an Italian Coast Guard vessel four hours later. According to the Twitter account of the organization, this operation followed three other ones conducted between July 22 and 23 during which the Astral team rendered assistance to 148 people who were brought to safety by the Italian Coast Guard.  

Two other SAR NGO ships could depart for the central Mediterranean these past days. The Sea-Watch 3 of Sea-Watch started patrolling in international waters off the coast of Libya on July 26. The Ocean Viking, chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE, departed from Sicily on July 24. Our ship searched for a boat reported in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region (SRR) by civil hotline Alarm Phone – with no information-sharing and no coordination from competent maritime authorities – for twelve hours between Sunday night and Monday morning. Media reports eventually suggested that the people in distress were rescued by the Armed forces of Malta (AFM). There were 46 survivors, among whom a baby.  

Over the weekend, more than thirty boats were reported to have arrived in Lampedusa, Italy. According to ADN Kronos, over 1,400 people arrived on the Sicilian island by the sea between July 22 and 24. 


At least 94 people have disappeared in the central Mediterranean these past two weeks 

This summer, deaths soar in the central Mediterranean. On July 26, at least 57 people were reported to have perished in a shipwreck off the Libyan coastal city of Khums according to testimonies from survivors gathered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Libya staff. Among the casualties were at least twenty women and two children.  

On July 21, at least 37 people have been reported missing at sea. According to the Tunisian Red Crescent, at least 17 people, who had departed on a boat from the Libyan coastal city of Zuwara two days earlier, died off Tunisia. Media reports they have been intoxicated by the fumes of the dinghy’s burning engine. La Stampa reported that among the 300 survivors who could be found off the Tunisian city of Zarzis, 166 were brought to Tunisia by the Tunisian Coast Guard while the others were returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard.  

In another tragic event that day, at least twenty people who had departed from Libya are known to have drowned according to the IOM. 230 others were forcibly returned to Libya, which cannot be considered a place of safety according to maritime law. Yet, 1,900 people have been forcibly brought back to Libya between July 20 and 24. On July 23, the NGO Sea-Watch tweeted on the fact they witnessed the commercial ship Vos Aphrodite rescue about 200 people in distress in the central Mediterranean and transfer the survivors to a Libyan Coast Guard vessel, leading to the forced and unlawful return of survivors to Libya. 

On July 15, Italy’s lower house of parliament (the Chamber of Deputies) approved, among other matters, renewed funding for a training program of the Libyan Coast Guard. The vote came as Amnesty International released a new report outlining a harrowing cycle of violence faced by men, women and children intercepted at sea by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard. Entitled “No one will look for you: forcibly returned from sea to abusive detention in Libya”, the report recounts the fate of 49 people previously intercepted at sea and detained in centres in Libya, nominally under the control of the Department for Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM). Meanwhile, on the same day, the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations Task Force on Libya published a joint statement sharing great concerns “about recent developments regarding the situation of migrants and refugees in Libya”, describing “severe overcrowding, lack of adequate facilities and provision of basic services, restricted humanitarian access and human rights violations” resulting in “unacceptable conditions for the men, women and children detained”.  

Between January and July 2021, the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard intercepted over 18,280 people at sea, as reported by the International Organization for Migration. That is more than in all of 2020. No less than 2,256 of them were intercepted in the past two weeks. 


SAR NGOs continue to do everything they can to fill in the rescue gap

On July 26, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rescue ship, Geo Barents, was released after 24 days of detention. A few days before, the organisation had requested the Italian authorities to release its ship after having “responded to all requests made by the Italian Maritime Authority.”  

The NGO Sea-Eye – running the Sea-Eye 4– will sell its former ship, the Alan Kurdi, to the Italian NGO ResQ. The ship will continue her lifesaving mission in the central Mediterranean under a new name: ResQ People. The transition between the two organizations will end when the ship is freed. It is now still under administrative detention, suspended by the Sardinian TAR (the Regional Administrative Tribunal) only to reach a shipyard in Burriana, Spain.   

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) will join our search and rescue operation as of August 2021. On July 19th, IFRC announced that the organisation launched an emergency appeal to provide life-saving assistance to people in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea onboard the Ocean Viking. IFRC will provide post-rescue support, including first aid, medical care, psychological support, food, dry clothes, blankets, toiletries and information to the people who have been safely brought on board the Ocean Viking. “In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis (…) it is unacceptable that people are still dying at sea, on Europe’s doorstep: this is a clear failure of the international community”, said IFRC President Francesco Rocca. It is an honour and a new milestone for our organisation. IFRC’s commitment to reaching out to people in distress at sea through this partnership highlights the absolute necessity to try and save lives in the Central Mediterranean. 


Cover picture: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE