On Friday, November 24th, since dawn, the Search-and-Rescue (SAR) team of SOS MEDITERRANEE had all worked tirelessly, not wanting lose sight of a boat in distress drifting just 1.5 nautical miles from the Aquarius.
“Given the weather and the condition of this boat, we knew it could break and sink at any moment,” said Search-and-Rescue coordinator Nicola Stalla. Lifejackets prepared, helmets fastened and radios tuned to the right frequency, the SAR team awaited the green light from the Italian authorities to launch its rescue boats at sea and commence the rescue operation.
But this green light was never given. The only instruction received from the MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center) in Rome that morning was to remain on stand-by. The Libyan Navy and the Coastguard had assumed the coordination of the operations and declined the assistance offered by SOS MEDITERRANEE, which helplessly witnessed the interception of several boats in international waters, 25 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
“During the four hours of stand-by, the weather conditions deteriorated, increasing the risk of shipwreck. We were ready to launch the rescue operation with our well-trained team and our professional equipment at all times,” continued the SAR-Coordinator.
From the bridge of the Aquarius, rescuers, medical team and journalists took turns to observe every detail of the operation conducted by the Libyan coastguard.
“It’s terrible to see that European and Libyan policies are being carried out on the backs of the people fleeing and putting all their lives at risk! “
“It’s like being forced to watch a disaster that is about to occur, two cars about to collide, a time-bomb about to explode … without being able to do anything. There could be 120, 140, 170 lives in danger aboard this rubber boat in very poor condition,” said one of the rescuers.
“And we had to look at it from a distance, because we were instructed to remain on stand-by, but every moment we feared that the boat would break and we knew that even if we would be given the green light to intervene, even if we went as fast as possible, it would still have taken us ten or fifteen minutes to reach the boat and during that time, women, children, men, who cannot swim, who have no lifejacket, would have already drowned. It is terrible to see that European and Libyan policies are being carried out on the backs of the people fleeing, and are putting all their lives at risk,” he continued.
Intercepted and sent back to the Libyan hell
According to the information received from the Aquarius following the end of the operations, the interception of the boats did not cause any casualties at sea that day. Little relief for those who, like the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescuers, are aware of the reality the people who have just been intercepted by the Libyan coastguards are returned to: detention, torture, ransom, violence or even slavery.
This is made all the more difficult by the fact that these interceptions have been frequent in recent weeks. Just 48 hours prior to this interception, the crews of the Aquarius witnessed a similar situation east of Tripoli. After a long period of stand-by and in the absence of intervention from those who claim to be the Libyan coastguard, the Aquarius was finally instructed to proceed to the rescue of 108 passengers of a boat in distress.
“Almost two hours after the first visual contact had been established, we were finally permitted to launch our rescue boats. There was not a minute to lose. This long wait caused great anguish aboard the Aquarius, but also aboard the boat in distress. The people were very agitated by the time we arrived,” explained SOS MEDITERRANEE’s deputy SAR-coordinator later. They had drifted for hours with the corpse of a young woman on board.
“What human being can accept to send these people back to the hell they describe? And if it was them, the political leaders, who had been in our place on the Aquarius, and if it was the body of their daughter, or their sister who had been found after our assistance was put on stand-by for four hours … would these leaders still make the same decisions today?” rescuers thought aboard the Aquarius.
On Friday, December 8th, the Aquarius witnessed another interception by Libyan coastguards in international waters. Offers of assistance were rejected by the Libyan coastguards. EU assets were present on scene.
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“These interceptions are extremely hard for our teams, as they are forced to observe, helpless, operations leading to the return to Libya of people fleeing what survivors describe as hell and that we have been denouncing since the beginning of our mission in the Mediterranean. SOS MEDITERRANEE, a European civil rescue organization at sea, cannot accept seeing human beings die at sea or seeing them being returned to Libya when their boat is intercepted by Libyan coastguards,” said Sophie Beau, co-founder of SOS MEDITERRANEE.