[Eyes on the central Med #27] Reports of about one out of two people forcibly returned to Libya this year amid continued humanitarian crisis at sea

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.  

Several people assisted at sea by NGO ships

On September 1, the Sea Eye 4 rescued 29 people in distress including two pregnant women and four babies, from a small wooden boat. On September 5, the Italian authorities assigned Porto Empedocle, Sicily, as a Place of Safety for the survivors on board.

On September 7, the Open Arms sailing boat Astral left the port of Siracusa, Sicily, towards the central Mediterranean. The day after, the crew assisted several boats in distress. All the people have been consequently rescued by the Italian coastguard. On September 9, the Astral left toward Badalona, Spain, for maintenance.

On September 10, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ship Geo Barents left the port of Augusta, Sicily, toward the central Mediterranean. On September 12, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC), reported a distress case in the Italian search and rescue region. The Geo Barents reportedly remained in the vicinity of the boat in distress until the Italian Coast Guard completed the rescue.

About one out of two people forcibly returned to Libya this year (IOM)

On September 7, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Italy stated that about one out of two people who have left Libyan shores have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya in 2021, reiterating that Libya is not a Place of Safety. On September 13, UNHCR Libya reported that 184 people were returned to the Oil Refinery point in Azzawiya. In total, 23,601 people have been forcibly returned to Libya this year.

According to Reuters, on September 3, fighting broke out in the Libyan capital between rival armed forces, considered as the heaviest clashes in the capital despite the ceasefire held since October 2020. The fighting reportedly followed major clashes last month in the city of Zawiya.

On September 8, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell visited Tripoli to reiterate the EU support to the Libyan ceasefire and process of elections. He stated that “with the stabilization of the situation in Libya, it should be possible to find better, more humane, and more efficient solutions to issues linked to migration. The only ones to benefit from instability in this context are criminal gangs and human traffickers, who exploit the desperate by sending them on a very risky journey across the Mediterranean. We are continuing to act against these criminals. We are also working to support Libyan border management capacity and we are active elsewhere in Africa”.

Several rescues by Italian coastguards and a shipwreck off Tunisia reported

The past two weeks, several boats reportedly arrived autonomously in Lampedusa. Most of the boats arrived independently few miles from Lampedusa before being rescued by the Italian coastguards. On September 9, two boats in distress have been also rescued by the Italian coastguards, one being already half sunk. The rescue was complex due to the sea conditions, 125 people have been eventually brought to safety in Lampedusa.

The same day, the Tunisian navy recovered 22 people in distress and two bodies from a boat off Sfax and brought them back to shore.

SOS MEDITERRANEE and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on their first joint mission

On September 13, the Ocean Viking left the port of Marseille, France, toward the central Mediterranean. This mission is the first one conducted in partnership with the IFRC. The IFRC team will provide post-rescue support, such as medical care, psychological support, protection activities as well as basic necessities to the people who have been rescued by the SOS MEDITERRANEE team.