Despite Frontex criticism, our duty is to continue saving lives

For several weeks now, Frontex, the European external borders protection agency, has dealt out harsh criticism of NGOs running rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. The SOS MEDITERRANEE teams cannot remain silent in the face of these allegations. 1

Let’s take a look at the facts. With more than 5,098 victims recorded in 2016 and already 521 deaths since the start of this year, the Central Mediterranean remains the deadliest migration route in the world. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 46,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since the early 2000s.2 This is a humanitarian crisis which has been taking place on Europe’s doorstep for more than 15 years now.  However, even now, there is still no institutional rescue system in place to respond to the needs of the Central Mediterranean.

Maritime law and international conventions are extremely clear on the matter: any vessel at sea has a duty to save another vessel in distress.3 Offering assistance to thousands of people whose lives are in danger is a legal obligation.

Seamen, aid workers, ordinary European citizens share the conviction that offering assistance to someone in mortal danger is also a moral obligation, it is our shared responsibility. Deliberately leaving people who are seeking safety and protection to die would be to deny our values, the very same values upon which the European project is founded. It would mean denying the very foundations of our basic humanity. We couldn’t simply stand back and let it happen.

We founded SOS MEDITERRANEE when Europe took the deliberate decision to end the large-scale Mare Nostrum rescue operation that had been headed up by the Italian navy for one year.  We created4 a European civil rescue association as a response to the failure of the European states to address this crisis.  With extraordinary support from civil society and thousands of donors, we were able to charter a rescue vessel, the Aquarius.

Since 26 February 2016, our vessel has tirelessly sailed international waters between Libya and Italy, coordinating at all times with the Italian authorities.  Complying with the legal obligations and instructions issued by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, based in Rome, our rescue teams have saved 9,339 people during 70 rescue operations. An additional 4,329 victims were also transferred from other vessels, bringing the total number of men, women and children welcomed onto the Aquarius up to 13,668.5

For over a year now, we have seen for ourselves the glaring absence of rescue resources off the Libyan coast.  After the shocking record number of 5,098 deaths in the Mediterranean in 2016, the Aquarius was the last remaining civilian rescue vessel in the area during most of the winter. Overwhelmed by the number of distress signals sent out from Rome, our teams were unable to cope with the surge of vessels in peril. Many of them disappeared in recent weeks without receiving any sort of assistance.

What is Frontex implying when its director says that we must avoid supporting the business of criminal networks and traffickers in Libya through European vessels picking up migrants ever closer to the Libyan coast?

Should we leave the distress areas that we cover in international waters off the Libyan coast and leave people to die at sea? Is he implying that civilian rescue vessels are involved in illegal human trafficking? What about all of the other vessels that respect the code of ethics at sea and also carry out rescue operations – merchant navy vessels, the Italian coast guard, the Sophia military vessels present in the area – are they also guilty of the same crime? Is the European agency asking us to stop saving people who are drowning, or to become less efficient?

SOS MEDITERRANEE is a humanitarian organisation and our mission is to save lives.  We are frontline witnesses of the distress these exiles experience. They risk their lives at sea after having fled war, famine and poverty. They risk their lives at sea after having escaped the clutches of the human trafficking networks in the hellish camps in Libya. Due to the current inexistence of safe routes to Europe, they have no alternative but to take to the seas.
We urge all member states, all of the institutions and all of the agencies to set the protection of human life as an absolute priority, regardless of the challenges and issues at stake for our societies.  It is essential that new rescue resources are created to save lives. SOS MEDITERRANEE shall continue its mission as long as a need exists.

[1] See the interview with the Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri, 27 February in the German daily Die Welt, reported in the French press
[2] Data on Mediterranean crossings on the IOM Missing migrants website:
[3] See also the UNCLOS, SAR and SOLAS Conventions
[4] In November 2013, the Italian navy launched a large-scale rescue operation which saved 150,000 people. It was ended in November 2014 under pressure from the European Union which refused to share the costs of the operation with Italy.
[5] Data on March 1st 2017.

Photo: Kevin McElvaney