537 people rescued from overloaded boats off Libya safe on board the Aquarius // Survivors escaping Libya tell of multiple interceptions by the Libyan Coastguard

Press release
Berlin / Geneva / Palermo / Marseille, 22.04.2018

The Aquarius, chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières, rescued a total of 458 people from overloaded unseaworthy boats in international waters off Libya, in three operations on Wednesday and Saturday. In addition, the Aquarius received a transfer of 79 people from the Italian Coast Guard on Saturday evening.

164 people were rescued from an overloaded rubber boat on Wednesday 18 April in international waters east of Tripoli. The rescue was carried out in cooperation with the NGO vessel Seafuchs, an Italian Navy helicopter and the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC).

222 people were then rescued from an overcrowded wooden boat by the Aquarius in the morning of Saturday 21 April in international waters west of Tripoli. The operation was carried out in coordination with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center.

72 people were then later rescued from a rubber boat in the same area in cooperation with the Astral operated by the NGO ProActiva, and the Moonbird patrol aircraft operated by the NGO Sea-Watch.

On Saturday evening, the Aquarius then had a transfer of 79 people rescued earlier by an Italian Coast Guard vessel.

A total of 537 men, women and children who are now on board the Aquarius, currently heading to a place of safety in Italy.

A majority of the survivors – among them many women and children – say they are fleeing Libya because it is unsafe. Some testify of multiple and sometimes tragic interceptions by the Libyan coastguard.

Overloaded, unseaworthy boats

“Two of the boats that we rescued during the past days were definitely overloaded. From our experience, an average of 120 to 140 people are usually pushed on the rubber boats. On Wednesday, there were 164 people, including  women and children, packed on an unseaworthy rubber boat, this is extremely dangerous. A wave could have broken the wooden floor at any moment and it would have ended in yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean”, said Nick Romaniuk, SOS MEDITERRANEE Rescue Coordinator.

“On Saturday morning, we found 222 people packed in an old wooden fishing boat. This was a complex operation : any panic could have caused the boat to capsize and would have left no chance to dozens of people packed inside the boat. Both those situations allowed no delays in intervention nor confusion in the coordination of the rescue. It is only thanks to the professionalism of our teams, the clear coordination of the rescue by competent authorities, as well as the cooperation with other NGOs boats, that tragedy was avoided”, Romaniuk added.

Survivors tell of multiple interceptions by Libyan coastguard

Among the 537 survivors of the four rescue events, were 85 women, of which 4 pregnant, 3 babies and 125 unaccompanied minors. They say they are fleeing Libya because of growing insecurity and ill treatment against migrants in Libya.

A group of 184 Eritreans were rescued on Saturday from the wooden boat. A young man, aged 22 years old, said: “I’ve been sitting in Libya for 11 months. First time, I paid money and come to the sea, but they caught me. They ask me to pay money. But I had no money from my parents, we have no money because our country is not good. Last night, I was sleeping but at night they came and said ‘out, out, to the small ship’, and we started to the road of the sea.”

A young Nigerian man rescued on Wednesday April 18 recounted how he had previously been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard: “The Libyan coastguard pursued us. Some people tried to jump off their boat to escape. Some drowned”, he told a SOS MEDITERRANEE volunteer.

“When we first saw the NGO rescue vessel, we all thought it was the Libyans. Everyone was very scared because we know what comes after that. When I realized that they were coming to rescue us, I said to myself: after all these years, all these sufferings, I’m not going back to the same sufferings.”

Earlier this week, the Aquarius and her crew had been repeatedly confronted with cases of confusion in the coordination of rescue operations in international waters, particularly in regard to the intervention of Libyan coastguard vessels.

On Tuesday, April 17, the Aquarius was mobilized by the IMRCC for the search for a boat in distress only to be later informed that the search was taken care of by the Libyan coastguard. The Aquarius was asked not to approach their position. Later on the same day, the Aquarius was informed of another boat in distress by the IMRCC and was again informed that the Libyan coastguard was taking charge of the search. In each of these two cases, confirmation of the interception of the boats in distress was received by the Aquarius only belatedly. The crews redoubled their efforts in finding the boats reported throughout the day, not knowing whether they had already been intercepted.

“Effective collaboration between competent authorities, European assets and rescue vessels of NGOs”

“Wednesday and Saturday’s rescue operations clearly show that there is still an acute humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean off the Libyan Coasts. Clear and transparent coordination with the competent maritime authorities, organized and effective collaboration between humanitarian rescue vessels and European assets operating in the area lead to the only acceptable result: lives saved, people cared for and delivered to a port of safety”, comments Sophie Beau, vice-president of SOS MEDITERRANEE International.

“However, SOS MEDITERRANEE remains deeply concerned as in recent weeks, we are increasingly seeing the searches initiated under instructions from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center aborted as a result of the erratic interventions of the Libyan coastguard. In these conditions, information is no longer transferred, confusion reigns. The efficiency, the speed of operations and therefore the lives of hundreds of people in distress are being seriously endangered. Furthermore, when interceptions are made, they result in the unacceptable return of people to hell in Libya”, she added.

On Saturday evening, the Aquarius was proceeding north to a place of safety, following the instructions of the IMRCC to disembark 537 rescued people in the port of Trapani on Monday morning.

For immediate release. Photos credits: Anthony Jean / SOS MEDITERRANEE.
For further information please contact
International: Mathilde Auvillain / m.auvillain@sosmediterranee.org
France: Julie Bégin / j.begin@sosmediterranee.org
Germany: Juliane Tetzlaff / j.tetzlaff@sosmediterranee.org
Italy: Barbara Amodeo / b.amodeo@sosmediterranee.org
Switzerland: Caroline Abu-SaDa / c.abu-sada@sosmediterranee.org