The Aquarius, a humanitarian rescue boat chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), completed a transfer of 69 people from an Italian navy ship on Thursday afternoon. Despite optimal meteorological conditions for departures, the Aquarius received on Friday morning instructions to proceed north and to leave the Search and Rescue (SAR) zone. She is now sailing towards Sicily to disembark the rescued people in the assigned port of safety of Catania, thereby reducing search and rescue capacities at a time when every single rescue asset is sorely needed.
69 people transferred from an Italian navy ship
On Thursday morning, the position of a rubber boat off Abu Khamash, Libya, was communicated to all vessels nearby. The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) requested the Aquarius to proceed to the target. The IMRCC then sent a fax to the Libyan Coast Guard, inquiring about the latter’s intentions and stating that the Aquarius was en route. As this fax remained unanswered by the Libyan Coast Guard, Moonbird, a reconnaissance aircraft operated by the NGO Sea-Watch, discovered the target and informed the nearest vessel, the Italian navy ship San Giusto, which then conducted the rescue. Following IMRCC instructions, the Aquarius approached the navy ship, and commenced the transfer of 69 rescued persons from San Giusto’s landing barge onto the Aquarius at 14 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. The transfer was successfully completed in the early afternoon at 13 nautical miles from the shores of Libya with the RHIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats) of SOS MEDITERRANEE.
Given the optimal meteorological conditions, the Aquarius resumed patrolling the rescue zone west of Tripoli for further rescues. The 69 persons now safe on board come from 6 West African countries with Nigerians forming the largest group. Among the survivors are 18 women including 4 pregnancies, and 4 unaccompanied minors, but no serious medical cases.
“I never thought of coming to Europe”
Once onboard the Aquarius, a 28-year-old man from Ghana described the dark turn life in Libya took after the Arab Spring: “I left Ghana almost a decade ago. My destination was always Libya, and I never thought of coming to Europe. Before the revolution, I lived a normal life, but after, there were guns everywhere – even 5-year-olds had guns. I was held in captivity and beaten so many times.” After being kidnapped again, he realised Libya was not safe anymore and attempted a first crossing to Europe. He was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and sent back to a detention centre. “Eventually, I was able to pay some money to get out”.
Aquarius instructed to leave the rescue zone while 1500 people onboard other vessels
On Friday morning, the IMRCC instructed the Aquarius to proceed to a rubber boat in distress with approximately 130 people on board at about 22 nautical miles east of Tripoli in the international waters. As other NGO assets were closer to the target, the IMRCC later requested another vessel to proceed to the site. The Aquarius was first asked to remain in the rescue zone. However, at 10:45, the IMRCC requested the Aquarius to proceed north where a port of safety would be assigned for disembarkation of the 69 people on board since Thursday.
Given the high likelihood of departures from Libya, the Aquarius communicated several times to the IMRCC her availability to resume patrolling the SAR zone and to standby to assist other assets. With only 69 people on board, the Aquarius has the capacity to comfortably accommodate hundreds more. What is more, an Italian cost guard vessel with large capacity was nearby, and the Aquarius emphasised the possibility to transfer the 69 people to allow her to remain in the patrolling area. Yet, she was instructed to return to Sicily with the 69 persons and depart from the SAR zone immediately, having been informed there were enough assets in the zone, although in reality, all other humanitarian rescue ships were overwhelmed and had reached their maximum capacity.
East of Tripoli, more than 1500 people were rescued by other vessels on Thursday and Friday. The departure of the Aquarius reduces the search and rescue capacity at a time when her presence could be crucial to save lives.
“Every single rescue asset is needed”
“In the last two days, more than fifteen hundred people have attempted the dangerous crossing to escape violence and extortion in Libya. This shows, once again, that the presence of dedicated and well-equipped search and rescue ships is absolutely necessary if we are to prevent more deaths in the Mediterranean”, said Sophie Beau, co-founder of SOS MEDITERRANEE and Vice president of SOS MEDITERRANEE. “Every single rescue asset is needed – fewer rescue vessels mean that the lives of already vulnerable people are put at risk. We urge the European authorities to prioritize the preservation of human lives above any political consideration.”