NGOs at sea: unwanted witnesses

Binoculars in hand the rescuer scans the horizon for hours and hours. Armed with his camera the photographer captures what he sees. The journalist observes, questions, analyzes. Being able to see is being able to help, being able to see is also being able to tell a story: saving lives and testifying are two of SOS MEDITERRANEE’s core missions. As rescue NGOs are being silenced more and more, we take a look back at our objective to testify at sea.


Let’s not take our eyes off the Mediterranean

In the summer of 2017, in international waters off the coast of Libya, a dozen NGOs were taking turns aiding people in distress at sea, but also acting as the eyes and ears of European citizens. Today, none of them are left. While SOS MEDITERRANEE is looking for a new ship, after multiple political and legal attacks that temporarily deprived us of a vessel, the Sea Watch 3 is unable to leave Catania for administrative reasons. On January 31, the ship was finally allowed to disembark 47 survivors in a place of safety, after they had been forced to wait out at sea for 13 days. The Open Arms still has not receive permission to leave Barcelona, ​​the Aita Mari is not allowed to leave San Sebastian, the Lifeline is blocked in Malta…

Meanwhile, IOM (International Organization for Migration) has reported 144 deaths on the central Mediterranean route since the beginning of this year [1]. This number does not account for all those who disappeared at sea without witnesses. Witnesses have in fact become “inconvenient”. They are not only prevented from rendering assistance, but also from testifying. “Desperate Journeys”, a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), states that in 2018 an average of six people lost their lives every day trying to cross the Mediterranean. In addition, the enabling of the Libyan coastguard led to the refoulement of 85% of those rescued or intercepted, back to Libya [2]. These practices violate international maritime and human rights law, but continue to be financed by the European Union.


NGO rescue ships: civilian observers of the Mediterranean

It is not a coincidence that NGOs are prevented from rendering assistance. Through their presence at sea, humanitarian Search-and-Rescue vessels are the link between the events they witness at sea and the civil society that supports them on land. SOS MEDITERRANEE was born out of a void left by the states in the central Mediterranean. From the start, our NGO has been determined to make the tragic situation known, relaying factual, verified and transparent information in order to raise awareness. To never become accustomed to the horrors of these crossings.

While NGOs continue to face political obstacles and European decisions violate international law, informing public opinion directly from testimonies at sea is a way to show the very tangible consequences of such decisions. Over forty photographers and communications officers from SOS MEDITERRANEE and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) rotated aboard the Aquarius since the ship first started operating. They form the link between operations at sea and teams on the ground: they collect testimonies, document operations through social networks and share materials needed for press releases. Our communications officers also accompany and assist the journalists on board throughout their stay.


Over 170 journalists welcomed aboard the Aquarius

During our two-and-a-half-year mission, more than 170 international journalists embarked our former rescue ship, the Aquarius. From the very first day, the ship was host to up to four journalists per rotation, spanning across radio, television, and print. They, too, have been witnesses to a disaster that was by definition far from the general public’s eyes, out on the high seas. They were able to access information on the ship’s bridge [3], on board our lifeboats, on deck with the teams and survivors and, when possible, in the clinic and in the shelter [4].

Hundreds of articles, portraits, reports, documentaries and even a comic book [5] were produced aboard the Aquarius. They document moments of crew preparation and training, Search-and-Rescue procedures, exchanges between the ship and maritime authorities. They put in words and images gestures, emotions, life and death too. They elevate the voices of those that survived the Libyan hell and crossing the Mediterranean, as well as the voices of our everyday witnesses, the doctors, midwives, rescuers, nurses, who have seen and heard so much. To understand who, why, how, and to tell the citizens.


“[My] status of witness gave in to a situation of extreme emergency” [6]

On board the Aquarius, all journalists attended a first aid training. In extreme emergencies such as rescues involving many people who had fallen into the water, cases of hypothermia or cardiac arrest, rescuers may need additional help. While this is by no means mandatory for journalists, whose testifying work is crucial in these moments, there were situations on board that forced them to put their cameras down.

“I do not want anyone to see what I saw”. In his “Mare Amarum” reportage produced on board the Aquarius, independent photojournalist Stefano De Luigi recounts 27 January 2018, one of the most difficult rescues that SOS MEDITERRANEE teams had to perform [7]. He told French magazine Télérama: “When going as I did into countries at war, one prepares to face violence and death. When this occurs – be it in Bosnia, Lebanon or Ivory Coast – the photographer takes a step back. Leaves room for those who must intervene and continues to do his job as a witness. At sea, when you’re on a zodiac and you’re confronted with this… you cannot step back. You put the camera down and act. Except that I was not prepared, having neither the age of the rescuers, nor their level of training” [8].


Blocking rescue ships to force civil society to look away

Over the past two years, civilian rescue vessels and the journalists they have welcomed have become bothersome witnesses to a European policy aimed at keeping the migration “crisis” out of sight and making it seem as if no one is dying in the Mediterranean any longer. Criminalizing and blocking the work of rescue NGOs for this purpose is condemning dozens, hundreds and thousands of lives to death or forced return to Libya. It is also an attempt at making this situation invisible. Without journalists, without civil society, without words or images, the current lack of coordination in the Search-and-Rescue area off Libya is harder to document. The missing people are more difficult to identify. The stories of those fleeing Libya are less audible.


In this context, SOS MEDITERRANEE continues to make every possible effort to return at sea as soon as possible. To continue saving lives, to continue welcoming witnesses and to not take our eyes off the Mediterranean Sea.



[2] Download “Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders”, UNHCR, January 2019

[3] Location on board the ship from where the Captain makes operational decisions in collaboration with the SOS MEDITERRANEE Search and Rescue Coordinator and competent maritime authorities.

[4] Location reserved for women and children on board.

[5] « BD “A bord de l’Aquarius” : un récit en images inédit », On board diary of SOS MEDITERRANEE, 16/01/2019

[6] « Regardez “Mare amarum” : le regard pudique d’un photographe à bord de l’Aquarius », Télérama, 06/12/2018

[7] “Mare Amarum – Aboard the Aquarius”, Arte

[8] « Regardez “Mare amarum” : le regard pudique d’un photographe à bord de l’Aquarius », Télérama, 06/12/2018



Photo credits: Federica Mameli / SOS MEDITERRANEE