Illustration Image

[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #59] At least 300 children, women and men died in 10 days while NGO ships are forced to head to distant ports 


[13.04 – 27.04.23] The following publication by SOS MEDITERRANEE intends to shed light on events which unfolded in the central Mediterranean in the past 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. 

Chaotic situation: dozens of boats in distress while civil rescue ships are removed from the central Mediterranean to disembark survivors in distant ports  

On April 21, Ocean Viking rescued 29 shipwrecked persons from a fiberglass boat in distress drifting in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region. survivors reported they spent five days at sea and 20 hours passed from the time of the first alert until the Ocean Viking reached the boat in distress. Maritime authorities were alerted but did not launch a rescue operation and a Maltese helicopter and Italian patrol boat on scene did not intervene to provide assistance. All survivors disembarked in Bari, Italy, on April 23. 

On April 15, Life Support of the NGO Emergency rescued 55 people. All survivors disembarked in the distant port of Carrara on April 19, four days after their rescue. 

On April 20, Humanity 1 of the NGO SOS Humanity rescued 69 shipwrecked people from an overcrowded rubber boat. The distant port of Ravenna was assigned shortly after. All survivors disembarked five days after, on April 25. 

SOS Humanity, Mission Lifeline and Sea-Eye published a press release announcing that they are taking legal action at the Civil Court in Rome against the Italian authorities’ policy of assigning distant ports explaining that it “clearly endangers the well-being of survivors of distress at sea and is aimed at illegally restricting the activities of NGOs.” 

On April 24, Geo Barents of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rescued 75 shipwrecked people from a wooden boat in the International waters off Libya. Again, a distant port was assigned: Napoli, Italy. The survivors disembarked only on April 27. 

Another rescue took place on April 24 performed by the sailing vessel Astral of the NGO Open Arms. 47 people were recovered from the water after their boat capsized. They were able to disembark in Lampedusa the same day. On April 27, Astral rescued 45 people from an iron boat and shortly after assisted 21 people. Sadly, one deceased person was reported.  

While Ocean Viking, Geo Barents and Humanity 1 were Heading North to disembark survivors in distant ports, the civil hotline Alarm Phone was alerted to 15 boats in distress in the central Mediterranean on April 23 and to 26 other distress situations the day after on April 24. 

At least 300 women, children and men drowned in the last 10 days while over 100 bodies were recovered on Tunisian and Libyan beaches 

On April 27, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that at least 300 women, children and men died in the central Mediterranean in just the last 10 days. The bodies of more than 100 people were recovered on Tunisian and Libyan beaches.  

On April 18, the Tunisian coastguard recovered four shipwrecked people who reported that 15 others were missing. The same day, following a shipwreck off Sabratha, six deceased persons were recovered by the Libyan Red Crescent. On April 23, 17 other dead bodies were recovered on the beach of Sabratha. The day after, 34 dead bodies were also recovered near the same city. 

On April 24, 31 deceased persons were recovered off the coast of Tunisia. The same day, following a shipwreck off Lampedusa, 20 people were reported to be missing while the Italian coastguard recovered 34 survivors and one deceased person. Still on April 24, 42 people were rescued by the Italian coastguard but three people were also reported to be missing.  

On April 25, two more shipwrecks were reported off the coast of Libya, one claiming the lives of 11 people and one claiming 55 lives, according to the survivors. 

More tragedies are reported in the documentation of the IOM, with the sad list of deaths that follow one another.  

Forced returns continue amidst reports of violent interceptions while numerous NGOs declare that Tunisia is not a place of safety  

Between April 9 and April 22, 94 people were forcibly returned to Libya according the IOM. In total , 4335 people have been returned to Libya in 2023 so far.  

On April 19, the surveillance aircraft Seabird of the NGO Sea-Watch witnessed two interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard 

According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, 14,963 people were returned to Tunisia in 2023 only, while InfoMigrants shared growing reports of violent interceptions endangering lives of people at sea with Tunisian Coast Guard adopting similar practices of Libyan Coast Guard 

On April 14, numerous NGOs published a statement to highlight that Tunisia “is neither a safe country of origin nor a safe third country. Therefore, it cannot be considered as a place of safety for people rescued at sea.” 

Council of Europe condemns the lack of coordination of Search and Rescue operations by European Member States 

Data shared by the newspaper Altreconomia shows that between 2019 and the first two months of 2023, almost six out of ten Italian Search and Rescue operations were classified by the Italian Minister of Interior as law enforcement operations 

The Times of Malta reported that Maltese authorities refuse to share data on Seach and Rescue operations in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region, citing “national security reasons”. Maltese Minister of Interior Byron Camilleri confirmed in a parliamentary questioning that 92 people rescued from distress at sea have been disembarked in Malta so far this year, Newsbook reports. The same day, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe published her activity report for 2022. The Commissioner condemns European Member States for their treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in Europe in 2022, citing an “approach to migration disproportionately focused on security that endangers human lives”. The Commissioner also urged Malta to effectively coordinate Search and Rescue operations and to review and suspend cooperation with Libya on migration. 

Credit picture: Hara Kaminara / SOS MEDITERRANEE