The Aquarius rescues 11 people off Libya & pursues active search for boats in distress as the last rescue ship present on the world’s deadliest maritime route
MARSEILLE, 21 September 2018 – The Aquarius chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rescued 11 persons from a small fiber glass boat in distress in international waters off the coast of Libya on Thursday 20 September. On Friday, the Aquarius continued actively searching for boats in distress on the world’s deadliest maritime route.
The small fiber glass boat was spotted from the bridge of the Aquarius on Thursday morning by a member of the crew. After assessing the situation, the Aquarius immediately tried to report the boat in distress to the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) and after receiving no response, finally contacted the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (ITMRCC). The crew of the Aquarius launched the rescue boats in order to carry out the rescue. The small boat was overcrowded, taking water and its 11 passengers were exposed to caustic fuel.
“Given the poor condition of the boat and the risk to the people on board, they had to be evacuated to the Aquarius immediately, while none of the contacted maritime authorities had yet officially assumed the coordination of the operation” said Nick Romaniuk, SAR Coordinator for SOS MEDITERRANEE. Following completion of the rescue, the ITMRCC informed the Aquarius that it would refer the Search and Rescue case to the Libyan JRCC.
Witnesses of the clashes in Tripoli, forced labour and extortion in Libya
The 11 rescued persons are all men, mainly Pakistanis, with one of the men originally from Ivory Coast. According to testimony collected on board after the rescue, they all spent several months in Libya before attempting to flee the country by sea.
“The rescued persons are showing signs of psychological distress,” explained crew aboard the Aquarius. “Some have been direct witnesses of the recent clashes in Tripoli, including killings of ‘innocent people’ and destruction of buildings. Most of them also said to have been victims of forced and unpaid labour since they arrived in Libya, where they said they were considered as ‘golden dogs’ as they were highly vulnerable to extortion.”
Aquarius won’t transfer survivors to Libyan patrol boat: Libya is not a place of safety
Two hours after completion of the rescue on Thursday, the Libyan maritime authorities (Libyan JRCC) informed the Aquarius by email that they assumed coordination for the operation. They requested that the Aquarius proceed to a rendez-vous point, off the coast of Zawiyah, to hand over the rescued people to a Libyan patrol boat.
The Aquarius informed the Libyan JRCC that as per SAR conventions, it could not proceed to the transfer, as Libyan ports cannot be considered a place of safety. The Libyan JRCC responded to the Aquarius that it should contact other MRCCs or its flag state. The Aquarius went on to contact the Italian and Maltese MRCCs, who later declined responsibility in assigning a place of safety.
“Our mission is to rescue, protect and testify. We will protect these 11 people until a place of safety is indicated by a competent maritime authority” said Frédéric Penard, director of operations of SOS MEDITERRANEE. “While the European heads of state and government were meeting in an extraordinary summit in Salzburg without achieving any progress on a coordinated European response to the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean, the Aquarius was faced once again with the evident contradictions of the actual EU policy,” he added.
On Thursday evening, the Aquarius resumed its active search for boats in distress, at 25 miles from the coast of Libya, on the world’s deadliest maritime route. More than 1,250 people have drowned since the beginning of the year on the Central Mediterranean route and no other dedicated rescue assets are present there at the moment.
The exact chronology of events, and legal references, are all available on line at onboard-aquarius.org