[Eyes on the Central Med #5] Deadly sea crossings: the list of shipwrecks in the Central Med gets longer while rescuers cannot help

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. 


One shipwreck after the other. This autumn, the grim list of dead and missing in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Channel –with the confirmed death of four people including two children this week- is getting longer by the day.  


  • Deadly week in the Central Mediterranean: nearly 40 people presumed dead in 4 different incidents

Tragic news of consecutive shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean is no longer making the headlines. Yet, in the past two weeks, at least 36 people were reported missing following 4 shipwrecks off Libya and Italy while available NGO SAR ships are not at sea, most of them being hindered from trying to save lives. 

On Sunday 18, six people were rescued by Italian coastguard from a drifting boat who had spent about ten days at sea, without any food or water. According to testimonies provided by the survivors to the Italian coastguard, five people died during their dire attempted crossing. The boat had left Algeria together with two other boats that arrived in Sardinia. 

Last week started with news of a shipwreck off Libya, while another one was reported on Thursday, and yet another one on Sunday. Within one week, at least 31 people are missing or presumed dead, including at least two children. 

  • On Monday 19, the IOM reported a shipwreck off the coast of Sabratha, Libya. At least 15 people were reported missing, five survivors were brought to shore by fishermen. 
  • On Thursday 22, a boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. Fifteen survivors were rescued by fishermen and brought to shore. 5 people are still reported missing. 
  • On Sunday October 25, at least eleven people drowned after their boat capsized, according to ten survivors rescued by fishermen and coastal security, as reported by Safa Msehli, IOM spokesperson

Departures continued these past two weeks in the Central Mediterranean – showing, once again, the absence of correlation between the presence of NGO ships and the fact people attempt to cross. Between the 12 and 25 October, according to the UNHCR, almost 1,000 people arrived in Italy via the sea. On October 20 in particular, seven boats with a total of 253 people arrived in Lampedusa. 116 people were intercepted by Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya, as reported by the latest Maritime Updates of the IOM Libya


At least 506 people have died so far this year in the Central Mediterranean. In a press release from October 23, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) expressed fears that “due to the lack of dedicated Search and Rescue assets and monitoring efforts, the number of fatalities is much higher, and that ‘invisible shipwreck’ continue to happen unseen by the international community.”  

Another significant development raised by the IOM highlights the deteriorating situation in Libya for Libyan nationals themselves: “over 430 Libyans attempted to cross to Italy this year, compared to some 240 during the same period of last year.” 


  • SAR NGO assets situation update: a seventh ship facing administrative blockage; Moonbird authorized to fly again 

The Louise Michel, rescue vessel funded by street artist Banksy, announced on October 22 that the ship is unable to leave port, facing an administrative blockage. It is the seventh SAR NGO vessel to be hindered or blocked from rescuing lives in the Central Mediterranean since May 5 (see the last two previous editions of our “Eyes on the Central Mediterranean”). 

After nearly two months of being grounded, the Moonbird, one of Sea Watch’s reconnaissance aircraft has been allowed to fly again. On October 23, Sea Watch and its medical partner Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that they have legally challenged the detention of their ship, the Sea Watch 4, by lodging an appeal with the administrative court in Palermo. 


  •  In Libya:  

Both sides to the conflict in Libya reportedly signed a permanent country-wide cease-fire agreement in Geneva on Friday, October 23. Acting Special-Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya Stephanie Williams urged all parties involved to work as quickly as possible to implement the commitments of the agreement to alleviate the suffering of the Libyan population.  

The senior Libyan coastguard commander known as Bija was arrested mid-October by the UN-backed government in Libya for alleged human trafficking. A UN security report published in June 2017 described Bija as a facilitator of human trafficking and part of a criminal network operating in Zawiyah, Libya. 

ANSA reports that almost 3,200 people are being held in eleven detention centres managed by the Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) in Libya, according to IOM and UNHCR insiders. 


  • Focus on the Atlantic Ocean humanitarian crisis: one of the deadliest yet increasingly used maritime migration routes 

The perilous Atlantic Ocean route between western Africa and the Canary Islands has also seen tragic shipwrecks and loss of life in the past two weeks. On Friday, October 23, an unknown number of people from Senegal died in a shipwreck after the boat’s motor exploded off the Senegalese city of Mbour. According to the testimonies of survivors, up to 200 people might have been on board. 51 people were rescued by the Senegalese army, an unknown number was rescued by fishermen. 

More than 2600 people have reached the Canary Islands by boat in one week from October 14 to 21, as many as in all of 2019. The Atlantic Ocean migratory route is considered as one of the deadliest ones with one person dying for each person reaching the Spanish Canary Islands, according to the IOM as reported in this RFI article


 Photo credit: Hara Kaminara / SOS MEDITERRANEE