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[Eyes on the Central Med #40] UN “Call to Save Lives at Sea”, hundreds of people again abandoned to their fate by maritime authorities


[11.05 – 25.05.22] The following publication by SOS MEDITERRANEE intends to shed light on events which unfolded in the central Mediterranean in the past two weeks. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a general update on maritime search-and-rescue-related matters occurring in the area we have been operating in since 2016, based on public reports by different NGOs, international organisations and the international press.   

Hundreds of women, children and men rescued by citizens amid increased blockages for their disembarkation  

Beginning on the morning of May 9 and over the following 72 hours, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have rescued 470 people from seven boats in distress in the Libyan and Maltese Search and Rescue Regions and brought them on board the Geo Barents without any coordination from maritime authorities. After seven days of waiting, on May 18th, the port of Augusta has been assigned to the Geo Barents for the disembarkation of survivors. 

MSF denounced this prolonged delay for the designation of a place of safety to disembark the survivors, which has been “getting closer to the 8.5 days average* reached when SAR activities were openly persecuted”. The disembarkation process started on May 19th but was interrupted halfway. Italian authorities instructed the Geo Barents to go at Anchor with 238 people, “including some with broken limbs and a diabetic patient”, said MSF. The next morning, six survivors jumped overboard. All survivors were recovered by the Geo Barents crew. The disembarkation was eventually completed on May 21st 

On May 10th, following alerts sent by Colibri2 aircraft of Pilotes Volontaires for two boats in distress, 110 and 112 people were rescued by the Italian Coastguard, with the collaboration of the Sea-Watch 4.  

On May 15th, the Sea-Eye 4 was assigned the port of Pozzallo, Sicily, as place of safety for the disembarkation of 58 people rescued in two separate operations in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region earlier in the week.  

Following the rescues of a total of 145 people evacuated from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region between May 4th and 8th, the Sea-Watch 4 was granted authorization to disembark the survivors in the port of Augusta, Sicily on May 16th. The disembarkation took place the next day.  

Between May 18th  and 21st, the sailing boat Astral, of the SAR NGO Open Arms, contributed to the rescues of three boats in distress in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region, alerting and providing assistance to the distress cases. On May 22nd, Astral provided assistance to a fourth boat in distress eventually rescued by the Ocean Viking.  

Between May 19th and 23rd, the Ocean Viking rescued 297 people in four separate rescue operations. A total of 158 survivors were rescued from two rubber boats found in distress in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region. Among the survivors were six pregnant women, several children and a 3-months-old baby. survivors reported the disappearance of one person who fell into the water few hours before the rescue. On May 22nd, in a night rescue operation, 75 survivors were evacuated from a rubber boat in distress after the sailing vessel Nadir, of the SAR NGO ResQ ship, assisted them by stabilizing the situation during several hours. Earlier, the Ocean Viking searched for a boat reported in distress by the civil network Alarm Phone, later confirmed to have been intercepted by Libyan coastguard. The Ocean Viking team witnessed a Libyan patrol vessel carrying numerous people. The survivors were most likely illegally returned to Libya. 

On May 23rd, few hours after the medical evacuation of a survivor rescued the night before, the team onboard the Ocean Viking performed a fourth rescue of 64 people from a wooden boat in distress spotted and stabilized by the sailing vessel Astral. A total of 296 people is now cared for by IFRC and SOS MEDITERRANEE teams onboard the vessel.  

On May 25th, a tragic rescue operation occurred. While the Astral sailing vessel of Open Arms, was attempting to render assistance to a wooden boat found in distress with over a hundred people onboard, the embarkation capsized. In cooperation with the sailing vessel Nadir of ResQship, survivors were recovered onto liferafts. At the time of writing, it is unknown whether people have perished. 


95 people reported dead or missing at sea

The International Organisation for Migration reported a shipwreck off the coast of Sfax in Tunisia, of a boat carrying a hundred people. Among them, 24 people could be rescued, 76 others remain missing. The boat had reportedly departed from the coastal Libyan city of Zuwara.

Alarabiya News reported a tragic shipwreck off the Tunisian coast on May 20: “three people were found dead or another ten went missing after their boat capsized”, 44 others, onboard the same embarkation, were rescued by the Tunisian coast guards. 

On May 24th, the Italian journalist S. Scandura reported another shipwreck causing the death of three people and the disappearance of three others while 17 survivors were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guards.  

Off Libya, a dramatic surge of illegal returns has been reported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A total of 1625 people were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by Libyan coastguards during the past two weeks: 996 from 8th to 14th of May; and 629 during the period from 15th to 21st of May 2022. 


Maltese maritime authorities silence repeatedly reported on SAR operations  

According to Times of Malta, on May 12th the Maltese authorities ignored alerts about an embarkation in distress with 24 people onboard in the Maltese SAR region. Few days later, on May 16th, another embarkation in distress with 26 people onboard in the Malta SAR region has been left alone during several hours. People onboard reported being at sea for three days and running out of food and water. The first embarkation ended being rescued by the Sea-eye 4. According to S. Scandura, the second boat was eventually rescued by the Italian Coast guards off Syracuse coasts on May 17th 


Autonomous arrivals in Italy: large wooden boat crossed the central Mediterranean with 450 people onboard 

According to International Organization for Migration (IOM), on May 14th, the Tunisian navy rescued 81 people from an unseaworthy boat who departed from Libya.  

On May 15th, 79 people on a sailing boat have been rescued by the Italian Coast Guards and disembarked in Pozzallo.  

According to SKY newspaper, 269 people onboard three boats autonomously reached the waters off Lampedusa on May 16th and disembarked in the following hours under the supervision of the Italian authorities.  

According to Ansa, a fishing boat with 450 people onboard autonomously landed in the port Pozzallo, escorted by the Guardia di Finanza and the Port authorities on May 17th. 

On May 24, a 12-meter fiberglass boat with 110 people was reported to have arrived autonomously in Lampedusa.  


Launch of Italian trial against four Iuventa crew members 

Five years after the start of investigations, the court of Trapani in Sicily launched the trial of four crew members of the Iuventa ship. They are accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Other members of the NGOs Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières are pursued in the same case following rescue activities conducted in 2017. 


UN “Call to Save Lives at Sea” 

On May 18th, IOM joined a “Call to Save Lives at Sea” with five other agencies of the United Nations (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – UNHCR, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – OHCHR, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – UNODC, United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund – UNICEF, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants). The UN organizations are recalling to the States their responsibilities in term of Search and Rescue at sea, and insisting in the fact that a rescue ends after the disembarkation of the rescued people in a “place of safety” as defined by the International Maritime Organization’s MSC.167(78) – Guidelines on the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea : “a place of safety as a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate; where the survivors’ safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, Shelter and medical needs) can be met, taking into account the particular circumstances of each individual (MSC.167(78), paras. 6.12 and 6.15)”.