[Eyes on the Central Med #2] “When people are in need of help, we will step in. We have always done that.”

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. 

Bodies keep washing up on Libyan shore

Hundreds of people intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya

Dozens of bodies have been washed up on Libyan shores in the past month. On Tuesday, September 15, the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Libya announced that at least 20 people reportedly lost their lives in a shipwreck occurring on Monday night, two bodies were retrieved by the Libyan Coast Guard.

Earlier this month, the IOM Missing Migrants Project announced a tragic updated death toll for the past month: “since mid-August, when 4 shipwrecks were reported in the Central Med, 48 bodies have washed ashore at Libyan coasts. According to our estimates, at least 54 other people could have died at sea in those incidents”.

Hundreds of people have been reportedly intercepted and returned to Libya over the past few days as well. According to IOM Libya, 454 people were returned to Libya between the 8th and 14th of September only. Since the beginning of the year, IOM reports that more than 8,000 people have been intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard.

End of the Maersk Etienne survivors weekslong ordeal

Standoffs at sea mean prolonged suffering and safety risks

40 days. The 27 people rescued on August 4 by the Maersk Etienne spent at least 40 days at sea, on three different ships – from a flimsy, and eventually sinking, small boat to a 185-meter-long Danish oil tanker from which authorities did not allow them to disembark for five weeks until they were transferred to the civilian rescue ship Mare Jonio of Italian NGO Mediterranea, following a medical evaluation on board last Friday. One woman and her husband were then evacuated from the Mare Jonio for medical reasons by the Italian Coast Guard. The longest standoff ever recorded in the Central Mediterranean current Search and Rescue (SAR) context eventually ended with the disembarkation of 25 people in a Place of Safety, Pozzallo, Sicily, on September 129. They were rescued on August 4.

Today, 278 people rescued between September 8 and 10 by the NGO ship Open Arms are facing a similar situation, waiting for a Place of Safety to disembark for 8 days.

The past few months have shown how keeping a ship waiting with no instructions for the disembarkation of survivors on board puts their safety and the one of the crew at further risk. A ship is not made for accommodating survivors over such prolonged and indefinite periods of time. In July 2020, the SOS MEDITERRANEE’s Ocean Viking crew witnessed how such uncertainties can lead to acts of despair with survivors jumping overboard – a State of Emergency had to be declared. The same situation occurred onboard the Maersk Etienne with three people jumping overboard. Times of Malta reported that one survivor also “threatened to jump overboard to “liberate the vessel” from himself (…), implying that he was a burden and that the crew “did not deserve” to remain stuck here for being kind enough to rescue them.” Today, Open Arms describes similar moments of tension and acts of despair which occurred onboard the NGO rescue ship yesterday: several survivors jumped overboard and were recovered by the crew together with the Italian Coast Guard.

Risk for commercial vessels to be deterred from performing rescues?

Mobilisation of maritime institutions to safeguard SAR

Throughout the course of the Maersk Etienne standoff, strong concerns were voiced over the consequences that such blockages of commercial ships could have on the future of SAR in the Central Mediterranean, where rescue capacity is already severely lacking: they could set a dangerous precedent, putting more lives at risk by deterring commercial vessels from rescuing boats in distress, as they are legally required to, to avoid being potentially caught in a lengthy political standoff at sea.

Deterrence policies against SAR activity in the Central Mediterranean are nothing new. They have come in different shapes and forms over the past three years. Instances of NGO and commercial vessels being left in limbo without a port to disembark after coming to the rescue of a boat in distress have accumulated over the past three years. In many cases, gruelling, lengthy diplomatic discussions ensued while survivors were already on board, with States repeatedly failing to reach ad-hoc solutions in a timely manner. This year alone, the Marina and Talia merchant vessels both faced the same situation.

Due to the record-breaking length of the Maersk Etienne standoff case, the topic was raised as an issue of grave concern not only by human rights, humanitarian and SAR organisations already working on the issue, but also by prominent institutions, trade unions and individual stakeholders from the maritime industry – in international general media, but also through a wide range of specialized maritime media and press. In a joint statement with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN agency for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) called on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to mobilise for the disembarkation of the 27 survivors. The European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) called for the European Union (EU) to “coordinate talks on a swift and solidary solution for the rescued persons on board the Maersk Etienne”. Maria Skipper Schwenn, Danish Shipping’s executive director for security, has also been a prominent voice calling for States to find a solution to solve this political standoff, and, is now advocating to “join forces [with SAR NGOs] in order to establish fair and dignified solutions for future SAR operations by merchant vessels”.

Over the past two weeks, it seems as though the issue of continuously deteriorating conditions for lifesaving activities in the Central Med is starting to no longer being perceived as an issue concerning SAR NGOs and their ships only. As much as European policies discriminate against people attempting the most dangerous maritime migration crossing in the world on a systematic basis, they do not discriminate between non-profit and commercial vessels. Seafarers and the maritime industry as a whole are facing the same political disrespect for maritime law when it comes to rescuing people in distress in the Central Med. With this realisation come examples of mobilisation from several major stakeholders of the maritime industry, which are a sign of hope for the safeguard of the fundamental maritime duty to save lives.

Interviewed after the end of the Etienne ordeal, Tommy Thomassen, Maersk Tankers’ chief technical officer, recalled such principles: “We would do it again, that is just how we are, we will do our duty. (…) Those instructions are the ones we have had for 100 years. When people are in need of help, we will step in. We have always done that. It is the duty of every seafarer. It is so deeply ingrained in our DNA and our values. And that is what the captain of Maersk Etienne did.”

States should fulfil their duty of assisting shipmasters in providing swift disembarkations. For this to happen, the 2019 Malta agreement for the relocation of people disembarking in Malta and Italy throughout EU Member States needs to be revived. So far, once again, an NGO ship had to fill the void left by States, coming to the assistance of the Maersk Etienne, before the survivors could disembark in a Place of Safety.

Also happening in the Central Mediterranean in the past 2 weeks

Last week, Sea Watch announced that the Moonbird surveillance aircraft they operate together with Humanitarian Pilot Initiative (HPI) had been grounded by Italian authorities, reducing the overall capacity to search for boats in distress from above the Central Med. A situation Sea Watch denounces as further criminalization and an attempt to “close our eyes on the Mediterranean”.

In Italy, Lampedusa has seen an increase of boats arriving autonomously or having been rescued or escorted by the Italian Coast Guard to the island this summer. Responding to the overcrowding of hotspots where asylum seekers, refugees and migrants stay, five quarantine ships have been chartered by Italian authorities and hundreds of people were transferred onboard these ships over the past two weeks. In the meantime, since the Covid-19 pandemic started and while departures continue, coastal European States are not seeing the 2019 Malta agreement mentioned above being reactivated and ships with vulnerable survivors on board keep facing political standoffs.


Photo credits: Yann Levy / SOS MEDITERRANEE