[Eyes on the central Med #28]  Recurring reports of rescues, forced returns and arrivals trigger renewed calls for European action

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 boats assisted and rescued by NGO vessels in the past two weeks 

Between September 18 and September 20, rescue operations carried out by the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and by the Geo Barents, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), saved 189 lives on the central Mediterranean.  

These included two rescues by the Ocean Viking of 25 and 33 people in distress in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region (SRR) on September 18. The two operations were supported by NGO aircrafts Seabird and Colibri 2, operated by Sea-Watch and Pilotes Volontaires. The same day, the Ocean Viking witnessed two interceptions by the Libyan coastguard. On September 19, 58 people in distress in the Maltese SRR were assisted by the Resqship sailing boat Nadir before being rescued by the Ocean Viking. In the last of four consecutive rescue operations, the Ocean Viking rescued 13 people adrift on a wooden boat in the Maltese SRR on September 20.  

After two medical evacuations and six requests for a Place of Safety, on September 23 the Italian maritime authorities eventually instructed the Ocean Viking to proceed to Augusta, Sicily, for disembarkation. On September 24, on its way to Augusta, the Ocean Viking spotted a drifting boat in distress in the Italian SRR. The team assessed and stabilised the situation before the Italian coastguard completed the rescue. On September 25, the remaining 122 survivors onboard the Ocean Viking disembarked in Augusta. The team onboard the Ocean Viking is now undergoing a 10-day quarantine ordered by Italian health authorities. 

On September 20, the Geo Barents rescued first 6 people and then later in the day 54 people in the Libyan SRR. On September 28, Italian authorities assigned Augusta as a Place of Safety for the 60 survivors onboard the Geo Barents. Earlier during the day, MSF reported to have sent seven requests for a Place of Safety to the competent maritime authorities.

On September 17, the Sea-Watch ship Sea-Watch 4 was released after spending five months detained in Trapani, Sicily. The ship left Italy to Burriana on September 22 to enter a shipyard. 

The majority of people forcibly returned to Libya are unaccounted for 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), between September 12 and 18, 819 people were intercepted at sea and another 865 people have been intercepted between September 19 and 25. The women, children and men intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard are forcibly and illegally returned to Libya, which is not a Place of Safety.

IOM expressed its concern over “the disappearance of thousands of Europe-bound immigrants who were intercepted and returned to Libya, fearing that many of them could have ended up in the hands of criminal groups and traffickers, while others were being extorted for release”. According to Safa Msehli, IOM spokesperson, “of more than 24,000 people intercepted this year, roughly 6,000 are in arbitrary detention. The majority are unaccounted for.” 

Several arrivals near Lampedusa and off the Ionian coast of Calabria 

On September 15, Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese decided to start a vaccination campaign for all people arriving on Italian shores by boats.   

In 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 coastguard. On September 27, a 15-metre fishing boat with 686 people onboard arrived autonomously at the commercial dock of Lampedusa. Four other smaller boats arrived later during the night. 

On September 25, two boats reported in distress off the Ionian coast of Calabria were rescued by the Italian coastguard before being disembarked in Sicily.  

Coastal Mediterranean states call EU to establish a predictable and compulsory relocation mechanism  

On September 25, at the second ministerial meeting in Malaga, the interior ministers of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain (MED5) called on “the European Union to ensure that the common migration policy is based on a fair distribution of responsibilities between Member States”. In their  joint statement, the MED5 stated that “this will be done through the establishment of a predictable and compulsory relocation mechanism for states that have to deal with arrivals (…) due to their geographical location”.  

Few days earlier, on September 20, during a meeting in Rome with the European Commission’s Vice President Margaritis Schinas, Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese further stated that “Italy, faced with growing flows by sea connected to situations of grave political and economic crisis affecting countries like Tunisia and Libya, is waiting over the coming months from member States for a concrete sign of solidarity regarding the reallocation of migrants”.  

Commercial ship receives recognition for saving people at sea 

On September 16, the Maersk Etienne’s crew received a special recognition by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for their efforts during last year’s rescue operation. On August 5, 2020, the crew of the Maersk Etienne rescued 27 people in distress at sea at the request of Maltese authorities. Once rescued, they and the crew were left stranded for an unprecedented 38 days. The survivors were eventually transferred to the Mediterranea ship Mare Jonio on September 11, 2020, and subsequently safely disembarked in Italy.