[Eyes on the Central Med #4] “Shocking cycle of violence” for people fleeing Libya denounced by the UN, reinforced at sea by the EU

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.

*Corrections were brought to this article on October 28 regarding the Open Arms administrative check conducted onboard the vessel.  


  • The EU brings repaired patrol boats back to Libya, enabling future forced returns to a cycle of abuse

Two Libyan ships belonging to Libyan General Administration for Costal Security (GACS) were returned to Libya after undergoing repairs with EU and Italian financial support to, as announced in a press release by the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to Libya, “reinforce Libyan capacity for Search and Rescue at sea”, “to save lives and tackle human trafficking and organised crime along the Libyan coast”. Nowhere is it mentioned in these EU communications where the people who will be intercepted by these two patrol boats will be disembarked, namely Libyan ports, in violation of maritime law as recognised by the EU Commission itself and against recommendations by the Council of Europe. EU policies of strengthening and funding Libyan authorities that have been adopted over the course of the past five years are being upheld and even advertised, when EU institutions are, in 2020, fully aware of the cycle of abuse and detention awaiting those intercepted.


  • Nearly 10,000 people intercepted at sea and forcibly brought back to Libya since January 2020

This past weekend (October 11 and 12), in only two days, 390 people were intercepted and forcibly brought back to Libya, which cannot be considered a Place of Safety, by the Libyan Coast Guard. More than 9,800 people faced the same fate, mainly at the hand of Libyan Coast Guard, since the beginning of the year. Among them, between March and September 2020, were 465 children according to data collected by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).


  • New reports of dire living conditions experienced by migrants in Libya

Grim reminders of why Libyan ports should not be considered a Place of Safety to disembark people rescued or intercepted at sea:

On the night of September 28, approximately 350 people, mostly from West Africa, including 24 children, were abducted by armed men in nearby Sabratah, Libya, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) reported last week: “since then, some have escaped and others were released, but 60 people remain held in captivity”. According to MSF, “the group, which includes 24 children, was abducted from their homes almost two weeks ago and is being held on a former military base in appalling conditions”. On October 2, three men have reportedly been shot and killed in an attempt to escape.

Four days later, a Nigerian man was killed, burned alive, and three other men suffered burns following the attack of a factory by three Libyan men in the Tripoli neighbourhood of Tajoura, as reported by the Chief of Mission of the IOM Libya and the Interior Ministry of the U.N.-supported Libyan government.


  • The Central Mediterranean empty of SAR NGO vessels

Six NGO ships are still under detention or prevented from conducting their lifesaving missions in the Central Mediterranean by Italian authorities. While the Aita Mari, the Ocean Viking, the Sea-Watch 3, the Sea-Watch 4 and the Mare Jonio have been hindered from operating for several weeks to several months (see our previous Eyes on the Med issue), the Alan Kurdi has been placed under administrative detention by Italian authorities for the second time this year on October 9.

The non-detention of the ship Open Arms of the NGO Proactiva-Open Arms following aadministrative check by Italian Coastguard conducted on October 3 after a quarantine period in the port of Palermo, Italy, offers a glimmer of hope. The ship is now in Barcelona, getting ready to go back to sea. Nonetheless, in the meantime, it has been nearly two weeks now that there have not been any SAR NGO vessels operating in the Central Mediterranean while departures continue.

On October 10, a boat in distress with approximately 130 people was spotted by the aircraft Seabird, one of Sea-Watch’s aerial assets. Sea Watch eventually “[assumed] that the boat was eventually pulled back by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard – once again with the participation of European actors”.


  • Italy: New decree on migration passed by the Council of Ministers

The Italian Council of Ministers passed a new decree on Immigration on October 5, modifying the security decrees initiated by Matteo Salvini when he was Ministor of Interior, and partly modifying Italian regulations regarding Search and Rescue in the Central Mediterranean. The new Italian decree on migration includes an exclusion clause concerning vessels that conducted rescue operations. Nonetheless, several provisions, subject to interpretation, maintain uncertainties and an overall presumption of guilt against vessels that performed the sole act of saving lives, with provisions for prison sentences up to 2 years and fines up to 50 000 euros. Yet, Search and Rescue operations at sea are not more of a political act in the Central Mediterranean than in other seas of the world. It is a moral and legal duty that has been regulated by international maritime conventions for decades, as recently recalled by EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

As recalled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi on the same day the Italian decree was passed, “reducing Search and Rescue capacity, or impeding those who engage to save others, or pushing back people without due process, will not stop people from moving; it will only lead to more deaths and the further erosion of refugee protection”.


  • Italy: questions raised on quarantine ships

Recent reports by Italian media and NGOs disclosed that men and women living in different temporary reception centres in Italy, and who tested positive to the Covid-19, would have been transferred to quarantine ships.

This information emerged after a 15-year-old boy died after being evacuated from one of the cruise ships used as “quarantine ships” in Italy for people rescued at sea. Rescued in mid-September by the NGO vessel Open Arms, Abu Diakite was in a coma when he was transferred from the quarantine ship Allegra to a hospital in Palermo. An investigation by Italian authorities, initiated by M. Diakite’s Italian legal guardian, is ongoing to identify the cause of death.

On Saturday October 3rd, three people jumped overboard from the Azzurra, one of the five Italian quarantine ships. Two persons were recovered but one is still reported missing according to Rai News.


  • New departures and reported shipwreck

While 11 bodies washed up on Libyan shores earlier this month, at least 17 people died when their boat sank off Tunisia on Sunday 11. Four to five people are still reported missing.

The Armed Forces of Malta rescued 38 people on October 2.

According to journalist Sergio Scandura, the Italian-flagged offshore supply vessel Asso Ventinove, stationed near the Bouri Oil Field, rescued 68 people who departed from Libya, yesterday. The survivors were reportedly disembarked in Lampedusa last night.

Over 800 people reached the island of Lampedusa on 37 boats this past weekend. 308 people, 8 of whom tested positive to COVID–19, have been transferred to quarantine ship SNAV Adriatico on Sunday. 236 will reportedly be quarantined on the SNAV Allegra.

The Italian journalist of Rai News, Angela Caponnetto, also reported on October 2 that two boats coming from Turkey, with a total of about a hundred people, were intercepted by the Italian Guardia di Finanza and landed in Calabria. She added that approximately 170 other people arrived in Lampedusa a few hours earlier.


  • UN Human Rights Office calls for “urgent action to address the dire situation of migrants attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea”

On October 2, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) called for “urgent action to address the dire situation of migrants attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea in search of safety in Europe” as well as the urgent need to “tackle the shocking conditions they face in Libya, at sea, and – frequently – upon their reception in Europe.” The press release, “‘Shocking’ cycle of violence for migrants departing Libya to seek safety in Europe”, reports “serious allegations of failure to assist people in distress at sea and possible coordinated push-backs that should be duly investigated”.


Photo credit: Kenny Karpov / SOS MEDITERRANEE