[Eyes on the Central Med #3] EU Commission recalls legal and moral duty to rescue but deadly shipwrecks and lengthy standoffs continue… and no NGO ships are left 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. 


  • Nearly a thousand people intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya amidst several reported shipwrecks off the coast of Libya 

While all NGO ships are currently forced to remain in port, grim reports of shipwrecks and estimated numbers of people who went missing or died were brought to light by organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Alarm Phone in the second half of September. 

Based on testimonies, the hotline Alarm Phone estimates that six shipwrecks occurred between September 14 and 25 and that at least 190 people are missing or died in the Central Mediterranean, while survivors were rescued by fishing vessels in several instances. 13 people lost their lives at sea and 3 bodies were retrieved following a shipwreck reported on September 25 by the IOM. The following day, the IOM also announced that people having faced a situation of acute distress at sea and who were brought back to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard reported to IOM staff upon disembarkation that 15 people drowned in that shipwreck. Over the past days, Seabird spotted several boats in distress at sea, reporting a dysfunctional or absent coordination over Search and Rescue events of rescue as well as interceptions and forced returns to Libya. A shipwreck occurred 25 nautical miles west of the southern tip of Sardinia on September 17. One of the 14 persons onboard is reportedly missing. 

Meanwhile, between September 15 and 28, 993 people were intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard, as reported by the IOM (https://twitter.com/IOM_Libya/status/1310659604293058560, https://twitter.com/IOM_Libya/status/1308122383845294082). 

According to the IOM Missing Migrants Project, at least 462 people have died in the Central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year. 


  • Standoffs at sea reach new lows in the absence of a predictable European disembarkation system 

Two weeks ago, the third issue of our Eyes on the Central Med reiterated how standoffs at sea meant prolonged suffering and repeated safety risks for survivors and crew on board ships having rescued people in distress. The following day, at least 70 survivors jumped overboard from the Spanish ship Open Arms off the coast of Sicily in an attempt to swim to the nearby city of Palermo where the ship was anchored waiting for instructions to disembark more than 270 survivors rescued in three different operations between 8 and 11 September. Two pregnant women and one of their husbands had to be medically evacuated from the Open Arms by the Italian coastguard. In total, more than 130 people jumped overboard. All people who jumped in the water were recovered by the Italian Coast Guard, with the support of the Sea Watch 4 crew, and either disembarked on land or transferred to the quarantine ferry Azzurra. In the afternoon of September 18, after 10 days of stand-off, approximately 140 remaining survivors were eventually assigned a Place of Safety and transferred from the Open Arms to another ferry ship chartered by Italian authorities, the Allegra, to undergo a 14-day quarantine. The crew of the Open Arms is currently also undergoing a 14-day quarantine onboard the Sea Watch 4. 

Another standoff occurred in the past two weeks when the Alan Kurdi of Sea Eye had to wait for one week before being authorised to disembark 125 survivors in a Place of Safety. In total, 133 people had been rescued in three different operations and 8 of them were medically evacuated before the end of the stand-off. Among the survivors were 62 minors and the youngest child was only five months old. On September 23, in the absence of positive answers by maritime authorities to their repeated requests for a safe port to disembark the survivors, Sea Eye announced that the ship was setting course for Marseille. As weather conditions were deteriorating and while the French government asked Italian authorities to allow the Alan Kurdi to dock in the “nearest safe harbour”, the Alan Kurdi was eventually allowed to take shelter off Sardinia and was later instructed to disembark the survivors in Olbia, Sardinia, on September 26. A process was reportedly agreed upon between different European countries for most of the survivors to be relocated in the aftermath of their disembarkation in Italy. 

Non-assistance and a lack of response from the responsible maritime authorities force crews and survivors to endure lengthy stand-offs or, as in the case of the Alan Kurdi, take the risk of travelling on the high seas for days. Crossing the Mediterranean after rescuing people from distress at sea can only be a means of last resort. A journey of several days can bear incalculable risks and ships are not designed to accommodate survivors for extended periods of time. In most cases, those who flee Libya across the Central Mediterranean have suffered unspeakable abuse. Prolonging their suffering by keeping them at sea with no certainty as to their disembarkation puts their health and lives in jeopardy and adds unnecessary suffering to their ordeal. To facilitate such a disembarkation is the responsibility of those Rescue Coordination Centers in the proximity of where the rescues took place, with the support of any able to assist Rescue Coordination Center if necessary. The reactivation of the so-called “Malta agreement” –the Joint declaration of intent on a controlled emergency procedure of September 2019, which drove the implementation of a relocation mechanism, in the spirit of European solidarity, is a matter of utmost priority. It is not conceivable to operate on a case-by-case basis, where vessels would have to cross the Mediterranean to disembark survivors. A predictable, coordinated and sustainable European disembarkation mechanism must be activated. 


  • Two additional NGO vessels hindered from performing their lifesaving missions 

Administrative detentions of NGO ships operating in the Central Mediterranean continue. 

Following the administrative detention of the Alan Kurdi, the Aita Mari, the Sea-Watch 3 and the Ocean Viking, the Sea-Watch 4 has been detained by the Italian authorities on September 19th following an 11-hour Port State Control in Palermo, Sicily, over the same administrative and safety arguments. The Sea-Watch 4, operated by Sea Watch and MSF, had just concluded their first mission at sea followed by a standoff and a quarantine of the crew. In a press statement, MSF stated: We are accused of ‘systematically’ saving people, criticised for having too many life jackets on board and scrutinised over the sewage system. Meanwhile, the obligation for every ship to provide assistance to boats in distress is completely disregarded.” The Sea-Watch 4 is the fifth civilian rescue ship being detained by Italian authorities in five months this year. Less than a week later, on September 25, the Italian NGO Mediterranea announced that its ship, the Mare Jonio, was stopped from leaving the port of Pozzallo by the port authorities with two crew members not being allowed to embark. 

While shipwrecks keep being reported off Libya and State-led Search and Rescue capacity is desperately lacking, systematic administrative detentions remove essential lifesaving assets from the Central Mediterranean: lives are at stake. 


  • Maritime Search and Rescue and the new Pact on Asylum and Migration 

On September 23, the European Commission unveiled its proposal for a new Pact on Migration and Asylum, accompanied by recommendations on “cooperation among Member States concerning operations carried out by vessels owned or operated by private entities for the purpose of search and rescue activities.”  

Talking about maritime Search and Rescue in her presentation of the new Pact on Asylum and Migration on September 23, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson recalled that “saving lives is always essential and always our [EU] obligation”. In the proposal, the European Commission recognised the need for a return to the application of legal and moral duties at sea and for coordination and cooperation among Member States on the matter. The unsustainability of ad hoc solutions for disembarkations following rescue operations at sea was acknowledged, as well as the role NGO vessels have played in contributing to the rescue of persons in distress in the Mediterranean and the need to avoid criminalisation of lifesaving efforts.  

This proposal by the European executive will now be the subject of talks between Member States, which are expected to take months. As a European Search and Rescue organisation, we call for this discourse of the European Commission to turn into immediate concrete actions which we have been calling for years. SOS MEDITERRANEE also recalls that it is of the utmost importance that not only to the criminalisation, but also to the blocking of NGO ships through administrative harassment as currently experienced by six NGO ships, stop urgently and do not occur again in the future. Moreover, as the European Union calls for the respect of international law, it is in the meantime supporting the Libyan Coastguard to intercept and forcibly return people back to Libya. Returning persons rescued from distress at sea to Libya, where especially migrants are subject to inhumane treatment, is against international and maritime law. Therefore, the financing of the Libyan Coastguard -with the EU taxpayers’ money- must be reconsidered so long as Libya cannot be considered a Place of Safety.