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[Eyes on the Central Med #42]  Repeated tragedies at sea: women, children and men drown while civilian organisations face standoffs and Libyan coastguard returns people to “widespread and systematic human rights violations”


[23.06 – 13.07.22] 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.     

Over 800 women, children and men assisted or rescued by civil rescue organisations amidst unspeakable tragedy witnessed  

On June 19, 261 people rescued by the merchant ship Aslihan and the rescue ship Louise Michel were transferred onboard the Sea Watch 4. On June 20, the crew of the Sea Watch 4 rescued 23 people from a boat in distress and then took onboard 29 people rescued by the sailing boat Nadir. 11 survivors had to be medically evacuated from the Sea Watch 4 between June 22 and June 27 in the wait for a place of safety. During the last medical evacuation, as the Italian vessel was approaching Sea Watch 4, several people jumped overboard hoping to finally disembark after about ten days of waiting for some of them. Everyone was safely recovered. On June 27 evening, Porto Empedocle was assigned as a port of disembarkation for the remaining survivors onboard. Everyone disembarked on June 28. 

On June 23, the sailing boat Nadir, of the NGO ResQship, rescued 19 people in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. The NGO reported that the people were adrift at sea for three days before being rescued. On June 26, the Italian authorities designated Lampedusa as a place of safety for the survivors onboard Nadir.  

On June 24, the rescue ship Louise Michel performed a critical rescue of 59 people with people in the water as the Libyan coastguard were dangerously manoeuvring around the boat in distress. According to Louise Michel, the Libyan patrol vessel was guided by a Maltese helicopter. On June 27, the survivors could disembark in Lampedusa.  

On June 27, the crew on the Geo Barents, of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), witnessed a tragedy. They arrived at a horrific scene of a capsized rubber boat with people in the water, 300 meters away from each other. They managed to pull out people from the water and to rescue 71 people from a certain death. They resuscitated a 4-month-old baby. But 30 people are reported missing, including 5 women and 8 children. One pregnant woman died on the deck of the Geo Barents. After multiple medical evacuations and five days of waiting, Taranto was finally assigned as place of safety for the 65 remaining survivors onboard. The disembarkation of the survivors and of the deceased person occurred on July 2.  

The Geo Barents left again towards the area of operations after the disembarkation in Taranto and rescued 315 people in distress in six operations on July 7. MSF reported that all the rescues occurred in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region without any coordination from the Maltese authorities. On July 8, a patient suffering from repeated seizures had to be evacuated by helicopter.  On July 11, five days after the six rescues, the Italian authorities assigned Taranto once again as a place of safety for the 314 remaining survivors onboard. The disembarkation of the 314 survivors started on July 13. 

Between June 24 and July 4, the Ocean Viking rescued 306 people in distress in eight rescues performed in the Libyan and Maltese Search and Rescue Regions. On July 5, the Italian authorities assigned Pozzallo as a place of safety for the survivors who could disembark on July 6 and July 7. 

Women, men and children continue to drown in the central Mediterranean  

In addition of the 30 deaths reported by MSF on June 27, other shipwrecks continue to occur in the central Mediterranean and people continue to die in awful conditions at sea. On July 1, Safa Msehli, International Organisation for Migrations (IOM) spokesperson, reported that 22 people died after being 9 days adrift at sea, according to 60 survivors brought back to Libya the same day. On July 4, the newspaper Libya Observer shared that 2 children and one man died after their boat capsized off Sabratha. 

In 2022, at least 810 people died in the central Mediterranean according to the IOM. 

Another tragedy was reported on land on June 24 between Mellilla, a Spanish enclave in Morocco and Nador in Morocco. According to several NGOs, 37 people died and hundred people were wounded in their attempt to cross the border due to an excessive use of force by the authorities.  

Despite repeated shipwrecks, SAR NGOs continue to be targeted by authorities  

On June 24, Sea Watch announced that the rescue ship Aurora, belonging to the British non-profit organisation Search and Rescue Relief (SARR) and partnered with Sea Watch, has been detained by the British authorities after its first mission in May. 

On July 9, the NGO Sea Watch informed that the German Parliament stated that the ban on flights imposed on Sea Watch aircrafts over the Libyan Search and Rescue Region is not legitimate as the “airspace over the high seas is not subject to state sovereignty”.  

Libyan coastguard increasingly active in returns and on scene during rescues by civil organisations while violation of human rights in Libya are proven once more 

As mentioned above, a Libyan patrol vessel was doing dangerous manoeuvres during a rescue performed by Louise Michel on June 24. On June 30, a Libyan patrol vessel was also approaching at high speed a boat in distress while the crew of the Ocean Viking was performing its rescue. On July 1, the aircraft Seabird, of the NGO Sea Watch, witnessed an illegal interception by the Libyan coastguard of 100 people in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. The NGO published few days later a video showing the interception and the poor behaviour of the Libyan coastguard. 

Overall, these past three weeks, according to IOM, a total of 1,412 people were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan coastguards: 480 from the 19th to the 25th of June; 633 during the period from the 26th of June to the 2nd of July; 299 during the period from the 3rd to the 9th of July. A total of 10,272 people were returned in 2022.  

On July 6, during the 50th session of the United Nation Human Rights Council, the Independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in Libya reported again “widespread and systematic human rights violations against migrants”. It also recalled that “reasonable grounds” exist “to believe that crimes against humanity are committed against migrants in Libya”. During the last months, the FFM collected new elements confirming previous investigations but also about events involving new actors occurred since its last report and recommendations. The last point highlighted the fact that “persistent impunity perpetuates cycles of violence and encourages new actors to engage in such activities”. The FFM also directly pointed on Malta and Italy responsibilities regarding their cooperation agreements with Libya and that little has been done to reform practices and address the crimes unveiled in previous reports. Due to difficulties to access to the field and obstacle to properly conduct its mission, the FFM requested an additional extension of its mandate. 

European Member States agree upon a relocation mechanism of survivors 

On June 22, 18 Member States and 3 Schengen associated States confirmed their involvement into a solidarity relocation mechanism of people rescued in the Mediterranean.  It is a first step to address the critical need for a predictable disembarkation mechanism in respect with maritime law, but its adoption was a condition for the MED5 (Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Spain) to accept the screening and Eurodac regulations proposed in the Pact on Migration and Asylum. One of the options offered by the agreement is to financially support third countries. Is too early to know if this agreement will be effective and how it will be implemented. 

Peak in autonomous arrivals in Italy 

According to the NGO Sea Watch, over 2,000 people arrived autonomously in Lampedusa in the first week of July. According to Matteo Villa, a senior researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), among the overall amount of people arriving in Italy through the central Mediterranean in 2022, only 14% were rescued by civilian organisation while 86% of the people arrived autonomously or were rescued by other actors.