[Eyes on the Central Med #6] Amid staggering death toll, NGO rescuers narrowly prevent shipwreck, first humanitarian presence in months

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. 

• Over 11,000 people forcibly returned to Libya so far this year, more than throughout all of 2019

A tragic shipwreck occurred off the coast of Libya on November 10. At least 13 people are reported missing, including three women and one child, after their boat capsized and one body was recovered. According to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) staff, 11 survivors were returned to Libya by the Libyan coastguard.

Since January, more than 11,000 people who tried to flee Libya have been intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to the country, according to the IOM. It is more than the number of people intercepted and returned in all of 2019 (9,225 people).

In the past two weeks alone, the IOM reported on the interception and return of 1,400 women, men and children. Almost 1,000 of them were intercepted in the first three days of November.

“In the absence of concrete action from States on Search and Rescue, safe predictable disembarkation and solidarity, more people are taken back to exploitation and abuse”, stated Federico Soda, IOM Libya chief of mission.

Three bodies were also retrieved off the Libyan coast on November 9, the IOM reported. Another deceased person had been retrieved on October 30.

• Upon her return, the Open Arms performs a rescue into the Central Mediterranean: a crucial presence amid the blockade of 7 NGO rescue ships

The Open Arms of NGO Proactiva-Open Arms left the port of Barcelona to resume her lifesaving mission in the Central Mediterranean on November 4. Six days later, the crew rescued 88 people, including two pregnant women, from a partially deflated rubber boat in distress. The previous day, the crew had searched for a rubber boat in distress reported adrift with approximately 60 people onboard. They were informed that the Libyan coastguard intercepted it before they arrived to the latest known position of the boat in distress. The crew also found a sinking wooden boat, with no one inside, and a backpack floating in the sea.

Seven NGO ships usually operating in the Central Mediterranean (Alan Kurdi, Sea Watch 3, Sea Watch 4, Mare Jonio, Ocean Viking, Louise Michel, Aita Mari) are still not operative due to administrative blockages. In the end of October, for the third time since September 14, two of the NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans crew members were denied embarkation on the Mare Jonio by Italian port authorities in Augusta, Sicily. This decision de facto hinders the ship from carrying out lifesaving missions in the Central Mediterranean.

In this context, the presence of the Open Arms is fundamental for the European civil society to keep saving lives, witnessing, informing and being informed about what is happening in the vast zone off Libya.

• Italian justice rejects request to prosecute Open Arms crew members

On the same day of the Open Arms’ return to sea, two members of the Spanish NGO, the former commander and head of mission, were cleared of accusations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration and private violence by the court of Ragusa, Italy. Following a preliminary hearing, the court decided “not to proceed” with the investigation, considering that there were no suitable elements found to constitute the crime of private violence and that the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration is not punishable due to “a state of necessity”. The two members of Proactiva-Open Arms were charged following a rescue operation of 218 people conducted in March 2018 under the coordination of the Italian authorities. The crew refused to follow instructions to allow the Libyan coastguard to take over the completion of the rescue, arguing that Libya is not a Place of Safety.

This decision is a good sign for the Open Arms rescuers as well as for the broader recognition of the unconditionality of maritime law principles and of the duty to save lives at sea.


• Tragic shipwreck narrowly avoided off Lampedusa amidst continued risky crossings in the Central Mediterranean

Since our latest “Eyes on the Central Med”, almost 3,000 people arrived to Italy by the sea, according to UNCHR data. A surge of arrivals on Lampedusa was observed in the beginning of the month with nearly 2,000 people arriving on the Italian island between November 1 and 6. A tragic shipwreck was narrowly avoided on November 4, when a rubber boat carrying about a hundred people, including women and children, hit a rock upon arrival.

Following these arrivals, the hotspot of Lampedusa dramatically exceeded its maximum capacity of 192 places, hosting up to 1,350 people these past two weeks. In the recent days, nearly 900 survivors were transferred onboard twoquarantine-ships, the Allegra and Rhapsody. Prior to these transfers, in the last weekend of October, 9 people reportedly self-injured onboard the quarantine-ship Rhapsody by ingesting razor blades and shards of glass, according to the Italian journalist Sergio Scandura and the local media Fanpage. They were evacuated to hospitals in Palermo.

On the other side of the Central Mediterranean, at least 172 people were rescued by Tunisian Coast Guard these past two weeks. 28 people were rescued off Kerkennah on November 7, the French press agency AFP reported. Four days earlier according to a member of the Tunisian Parliament, the Tunisian Coast Guard rescued 31 people from a boat that had departed from Libya.  On October 26, a tragic shipwreck was avoided with the Tunisian navy and the Tunisian Coast Guard rescuing 113 people, including 9 children, off Sfax from a boat filling up with water, according to local media.

• Legal action filed by survivors of the “April tragedy”

Fifty persons who were returned to Libya last April, and two siblings of people who died at sea, have filed constitutional proceedings against the Maltese government, seeking justice for what they consider as a delayed rescue and a pushback coordinated by the Armed Forces of Malta. In this file supported by the Maltese civil rights organization Repubblika, they claim 50 of the plaintiffs were onboard a boat in distress which was spotted by a Frontex aircraft in the Maltese search and rescue zone three days before the Maltese authorities assigned the private fishing boat “Dar As-Salam” to their rescue; by that time, several people had died. The survivors were returned to Libya. According to Times of Malta, the procedure claims various breaches of human rights, including inhuman and degrading treatment, collective expulsion, as well as violations of the right to life and the right to seek asylum.

• Surge of crossing attempts in the Atlantic route from West African coasts to Spain. Over 200 people reported dead or missing.

Following up on the previous edition of our “Eyes on the Central Mediterranean”, we focus here on the latest developments in the Western Mediterranean and on the Atlantic route.

Almost 2,000 people arrived to the Canary Islands on some 40 boats over the last weekend only. One deceased person was reportedly found on a boat with approximately 160 other people on board, many of whom suffered from dehydration.

In the previous ten days, several hundreds of people arrived on the Canary Islands, the Balearic Islands and in the South of Spain. At least two bodies were recovered from boats reaching the Spanish shores. One person was found dead on a boat rescued near Gran Canaria by Salvamento Marítimo and the Spanish Guardia Civil on November 2 and on November 4, a boat with 72 people was rescued south of Tenerife, among whom one deceased person and three people in serious medical conditions. According to testimonies, they had been at sea for ten days, after departing from Senegal.

Nearly 200 people disappeared in two shipwrecks in the end of October in the Atlantic Ocean while trying to reach the Canary Islands. It is now reported that at least 140 people died in what the IOM called the “deadliest shipwreck of the year” on October 24 when a boat carrying around 200 migrants sank off the Senegalese coast (see our previous  “Eyes on the Central Med”). Over fifty people are also reported to have died in a shipwreck off the Mauritanian coast according to the testimonies of 27 survivors.