[Eyes on the Central Med] Civil society keeps mobilising against all odds while States keep looking away 

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 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.

Heavy death toll, hundreds of people missing or forcibly returned to Libya

This year again, the month of August was particularly lethal on the deadliest maritime migration route in the world. According to various accounts by NGOs working in this context, unseaworthy boats kept being reported in distress in the Central Mediterranean and the distress alerts were still rarely answered to, or only with extensive delays, by maritime authorities. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 69 people have died attempting the crossing. From testimonies and information gathered on the week of August 17, the hotline Alarm Phone reported that many others went missing and were feared dead in as many as four shipwrecks. Bodies have been washed ashore in Libya. The UN Refugee agency, UNHCR, and the IOM called for urgent action when they announced the loss of 45 lives on August 17 in the “largest shipwreck off the Libyan coast this year”. The circumstances surrounding this dramatic event, when the boat caught fire and several people got burned, were the subject of testimonies by survivors who were returned to Libya.

One dead body was retrieved by the Louise Michel rescue ship from a rubber boat in distress on August 28. According to accounts of the 130 survivors, three people died during the crossing in addition to the deceased person who was later transferred to Lampedusa by the Italian Coast Guard.

According to IOM, at least 700 people were intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya in the last two weeks of August.

New civil rescue ships in the Central Mediterranean

Civil Search and Rescue ships Sea Watch 3 and the Ocean Viking of SOS MEDITERRANEE are still detained to by Italian authorities in Porto Empedocle, Sicily. The Alan Kurdi of Sea Eye and the Aita Mari of Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario (SMH) are also still unable to resume their lifesaving mission in the aftermath of inspections conducted by Italian authorities in the spring. In the meantime, the European civil society remains resourceful in ensuring a Search and Rescue (SAR) presence and availability in the Central Mediterranean. The second half of August saw the arrival of two new SAR assets:

  • the Sea-Watch 4, a vessel bought by Sea-Watch and the United4Rescue coalition, led by the Protestant Church in Germany. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides medical and humanitarian assistance on board.
  • the MV Louise Michel, a vessel bought with proceeds from the sale of street artist Banksy’s artwork.

These ships alone have assisted more than 400 people in distress at sea.

In addition, both ships of SAR NGO Proactiva-Open Arms, the Astral and the Open Arms, have come back to the Central Mediterranean after several months of absence, mainly due to technical repairs undergone by the Open Arms.

Commercial and NGO ships in deadlock: survivors left in limbo at sea

States have reached new lows in their disregard for their maritime law obligations when it comes to Search and Rescue in the Central Mediterranean in the last month. Standoffs experienced at sea by ships having rescued people in distress and not being able to disembark the survivors afterwards have been going on for over two years. They concern NGOs as well as merchant ships. Vulnerable survivors are left in limbo for days or weeks in precarious conditions: a ship cannot be considered a sustainable Place of Safety for rescued people.

Oil tanker Maersk Etienne rescued 27 people on August 4, responding to a distress call from a small boat and, according to Maersk shipping company, upon instructions of the Maltese Rescue Coordination Centre. The ship has since then been experiencing the longest Central Mediterranean standoff ever recorded to this day. No solution for the disembarkation of the rescued people to a Place of Safety as required by maritime law has been provided yet. Calling for their immediate disembarkation on August 29, the IOM and UNHCR stated that “it is vital that [commercial vessels] are permitted to disembark rescued passengers promptly, as without such timely processes, shipmasters of commercial vessels may be deterred from attending to distress calls for fear of being stranded at sea for weeks on end”. A concern shared by SOS MEDITERRANEE as more lives would be lost in the future if able-to-assist vessels in the area are deterred from fulfilling their duty to rescue.

The Sea Watch 4 experienced a similar situation, having to wait for days at sea with no solution in sight for the disembarkation of more than 350 rescued people. Some had been at sea for over eleven days when they were finally informed of the organisation of their transfer to a quarantine ship in Palermo, planned for September 2.

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IOM Missing Migrants’ latest figures on casualties recorded in the Central Mediterranean so far: “Missing Migrants”

Photo credits: Yann Levy / SOS MEDITERRANEE