105 rescued people en route to a safe port in Italy after 3 days of bureaucratic stand-off on the high seas

The Aquarius, a humanitarian rescue boat chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is heading towards the port of Catania in Italy with 105 people rescued at sea Sunday by a Spanish ship. After two long days of bureaucratic procrastination the Aquarius received authorization to transfer, and then later, the attribution of a place of safety by responsible maritime authorities.


Bureaucratic stand-off

Sunday, 105 people including women and children were rescued in the Mediterranean by the British-flagged Astral, a rescue boat of the NGO ProActiva OpenArms. Transhipment to a more suitable unit was required because of precarious conditions on board the Astral (a 30-meter sailboat).

The UKMRCC (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center)  contacted the Aquarius at dawn on Monday, providing the coordinates of a rendezvous point with the Astral to assist, if necessary, the 105 people.

The Aquarius offered its availability to receive the 105 people rescued, but was required to obtain written authorization from a competent maritime authority before proceeding with the transhipment.

There followed long hours of diplomatic negotiations between the Italian and British authorities, while the hygiene and health conditions of the 105 shipwrecked were deteriorating aboard the Astral.

After a whole day of waiting, the Rome Italian MRCC finally unlocked the situation by granting the authorization to transfer the 105 people aboard the Aquarius on Monday night. Aboard the Aquarius, they were supported by the professional rescuers of SOS MEDITERRANEE and the medical team from MSF.

On Tuesday morning, Aquarius informed the Italian maritime authorities – that had authorized the transhipment the day before – of its intention to leave the rescue zone due to the imminent deterioration of weather conditions. At this time it therefore requested the indication of a “Place of safety” for the landing of the 105 rescued at sea. This was finally assigned late afternoon on Tuesday.

The Aquarius is now heading to the port of Catania (Sicily) for the landing of the 105 rescued people on Thursday morning at 8.00.


Interceptions by the Libyan coastguard

Among the 105 people on board the Aquarius are eight women and 34 minors, including six children under 13 years old. They are originally from nine different countries, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea and Sudan. Most have said they were escaping from Libya because of insecurity.

A 21-year-old Nigerian woman told a SOS MEDITERRANEE volunteer: “Last July, I tried the crossing, but the Libyans stopped us at sea, took us back to Libya and I was thrown again in prison, for five months and two weeks. In prison there was no toilet, little to eat, no clothes. We were mistreated, we were beaten. They even killed a Sudanese boy. And one day, someone came, paid for me to go out, but then I had to pay that money back. I decided to run away again. When we saw the rescue boat approaching Sunday, we were so scared that it was Libyans again.”

On Sunday, the Aquarius witnessed the interception by the Libyan coastguard of a rubber boat in international waters (24 nautical miles from the Libyan coast) east of Tripoli. SOS MEDITERRANEE volunteers observed with binoculars that several people were jumping into the water during the interception. After repeated calls offering assistance from our professional rescuers, the Libyan coastguard instead ordered the Aquarius to move away from the current operation.

“The current confusion in the coordination of rescues at sea that we are witnessing is the result of the implementation of the European policy endorsed by the Malta Declaration signed in February 2017. The result is in front of our eyes: a decline in the arrivals of people alive in Italy, but an increase in the number of deaths; a decrease in the number of rescues operated by humanitarian rescue boats, but an increase in insecurity at sea due to unclear transfers of responsibility to the Libyan authorities”, said Frédéric Penard, Director of Operations at SOS MEDITERRANEE.

“In the light of the shameful and unacceptable treatment of these 105, SOS MEDITERRANEE on this 9th of May, Europe Day, calls on European officials to urgently review their direction. We urge them to give top priority to the rescue and protection of human life at sea, following the founding principles of solidarity and humanity of the European Union,” Penard added.


For immediate release. Photos credits: Anthony Jean / SOS MEDITERRANEE.

For further information please contact:
International: Mathilde Auvillain / m.auvillain@sosmediterranee.org
France: Laura Garel / l.garel@sosmediterranee.org
Germany: Jana Ciernioch / j.ciernioch@sosmediterranee.org
Italy: Barbara Amodeo / b.amodeo@sosmediterranee.org
Switzerland: Julie Melichar / j.melichar@sosmediterranee.org