[Eyes on the central Med #26] Numerous boats in distress, several bodies retrieved and skyrocketing forced returns in 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.  

Numerous boats in distress assisted by NGO vessels in the past two weeks, Sea Eye 4 released

On August 18, the Sea-Eye 4 was released by the Italian maritime authorities following ten weeks of administrative detention after completing technical adjustments required by the authorities. On August 27, the ship left Palermo towards the central Mediterranean.

On August 21, after a mandatory quarantine and negative PCR tests, the Sea-Watch 3 left Trapani for a port call in Burriana, Spain.

On August 23, the Open Arms sailing boat Astral has left the port of Badalona, Spain, towards the central Mediterranean. On August 28, the Astral assisted a total of 121 people through six operations. All the people have been consequently rescued by the Italian coastguard. On August 30, the Astral also assisted several other boats in distress.

Between August 22 and August 24, the Resqship sailing boat Nadir assisted several boats in distress and rescued 17 people from another wooden boat risking to sink. They all have been eventually rescued or transferred by the Italian coastguard.

On August 24, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) search and rescue vessel Geo Barents was eventually allowed to disembark the 322 survivors rescued between August 5 and August 17 in Augusta, Sicily.

Forced returns and shipwrecks continue to be reported at sea

The past two weeks have reportedly been tragic again in the central Mediterranean as shipwrecks have been documented and potential invisible shipwrecks occurred: dead bodies washed ashore or were retrieved from the sea. Meanwhile, the number of forced returns keep skyrocketing.

On August 22, at least 16 women, children and men were reported missing following a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, as reported by the IOM Missing Migrants Project, while 279 people were forcibly returned to Tripoli following three disembarkations, according to the UNHCR.

On August 24, the Sea-Watch aircraft Moonbird spotted several empty boats and interceptions by Libyan coastguards. On August 26, according to the NGO Alarm Phone, eight bodies have washed up on shore near Sabratha.

On August 27, the Sea-Watch aircraft Seabird spotted a capsized wooden boat in international waters. Eleven people reportedly climbed back onto the overturned boat while five people were in the water. Seabird witnessed the Italian offshore supply ship Asso Venticinque come to the rescue before transferring survivors onto a Libyan patrol vessel, typically leading to forced returns to Libya, which is against international law. The Seabird spotted at least one lifeless body while the number of people who lost their lives remained unclear.

On August 28, 130 people were forcibly returned to Tripoli from two boats that capsized at sea. Four people were reported missing according to the UNHCR.

According to the IOM, at least 23,550 people have been forcibly returned to Libya in 2021. While about 6,000 people are in official detention centres, disappearances continue. “We fear that many are being extorted of ending up in the hands of traffickers”, said Safa Msehli, IOM spokesperson.

Armed Forces of Malta and Italian coastguards rescued several boats in distress

On August 19, seven people including children were rescued from a drifting boat by the Armed Forces of Malta. On August 28, Italian coastguard vessels rescued 539 people from a severely overcrowded wooden boat off Lampedusa. At least 20 of the survivors were showing scars from torture they endured in Libya, according to an MSF doctor as reported in the press. “The signs of beatings, burns, scars, torture they present are unjustifiable and unacceptable”, added Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM spokesperson. According to the press, Italian prosecutors have opened an inquiry into what may have happened to these people who fled Libya.

Number of deaths in the central Mediterranean is four time higher compared with the same period last year

A quarterly regional report released by the IOM Missing Migrants Project shows that the central Mediterranean route saw a nearly four-fold increase in the number of deaths reported during the second quarter of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020. This spike reaffirms that the central Mediterranean is the deadliest migratory route in the world. The overview notes that on the top of documented deaths, there is an increase in reports of possible “invisible shipwrecks” reiterating that data is likely largely incomplete.