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[EYES ON THE CENTRAL MED #61] Chaotic situation in Libya and surge of departures, while allocation of remote ports and detention of NGO ships empty the central Mediterranean Sea of rescue capacities


[18.05 – 08.06.23] 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.


Rescues operated near daily by NGO ships, maritime authorities playing a small part in coordination of operations while still attributing distant ports that empty Search and Rescue capacities in the central Mediterranean 

On May 17, the rescue ship Louise Michel evacuated 71 people from an overcrowded rubber boat in distress, less than a day after being back at sea. The crew was informed by aircraft Colibri 2 from Pilotes Volontaires about a potential distress case. The next day, the survivors were disembarked in the port of Trapani, Italy.

Between May 18 and 19, according to Italian journalist of Radio Radicale Sergio Scandura, around 700 people were rescued off the coast of Calabria by Italian coast guards, disembarked in Messina and Reggio Calabria, Italy, by Diciotti coast guard ship.

On May 19, according to civil hotline Alarm Phone, the container ship CAPE FRANKLIN rescued 48 people from a boat in distress, coordinated by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC). The survivors were disembarked in Pozzallo, Italy.

On May 19, 26 survivors rescued by Geo Barents, vessel operated by MSF, were disembarked in Brindisi, Italy.

On May 25, Ocean Viking of the NGO SOS MEDITERRANEE was involved in a long joint operation with Emergency NGO and seabird aircraft from Sea Watch NGO, to search for a boat in distress reported by Alarm Phone, with approximately 500 people on board in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region, to no avail. The search lasted almost 48 hours: the people in distress were reportedly intercepted and forcibly brought back to Libya.

On May 26, Humanity 1 of SOS Humanity NGO rescued 88 people, including 10 minors, from an overcrowded wooden boat. Later, they were assigned the distant port of Livorno, Italy to disembark the rescued people, regardless of a second boat in distress reported by survivors. After a four-day transit, the 88 survivors were safely disembarked in Italy.

On May 27, another rescue was coordinated by the Italian MRCC, who contacted Geo Barents, operated by MSF, to assist an overcrowded boat in distress with 606 people onboard. After a long rescue operation, the survivors, including 11 women and 151 minors, were safely transferred on Geo Barents. MSF teams onboard were later instructed to disembark them in Bari, Italy. The disembarkation took place on May 30.

On May 28, sailing ship Nadir of Resqship NGO supported an overcrowded boat with about 55 people in distress, providing people with life jackets and water, then accompanying the survivors towards Lampedusa. Later, the Guardia di Finanza proceeded to their evacuation and disembarkation in Lampedusa. The same day, the crew of the Sea Eye 4, operated by Sea-Eye NGO rescued 17 people from a wooden boat in distress at sea. Immediately after, they were assigned the port of Ortona, Italy by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, about 1,300 Nautical Miles away.

On May 30, the Sea Eye 4 conducted a second operation in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, while searching for another case of approximately 400 people in distress. They managed to rescue 32 people from an unseaworthy wooden boat. The 49 survivors were all disembarked in Ortona, Italy, on June 2nd. As the ship did not proceed immediately to the port of Ortona after carrying out the first rescue, the Sea Eye 4 has been temporarily detained by Italian maritime authorities (see next chapter).

On May 31, a new SAR asset, Mare*Go, operated by Zusammenland, was involved in a joint operation with Resqship’s Nadir and Seabird 2 aircraft. Mare*Go arrived first on scene and assisted the boat in distress with 31 people on board. Later, the Guardia di Finanza evacuated them. Shortly after, the same day, Mare*Go crew spotted another boat in distress with 44 people on board. The crew stayed with the boat until evacuation of the survivors by the Guardia di Finanza.

The next day, on June 1st, several rescue operations were conducted. During the night, Resqship’s Nadir assisted a total of 160 people on 4 boats in distress in the Maltese SAR zone.

Mare*Go crew also spotted a metal boat in distress and rescued 36 people. Shortly after, they were assigned to the distant port of Trapani, Italy to disembark the survivors, but the vessel proceeded into port in Lampedusa instead. This led to her temporary detention by Italian authorities (see next chapter).

On June 2, Emergency’s Life Support rescued 29 people in the Libyan SAR zone. They were assigned by maritime authorities the very distant port of Marina di Carrara, Italy. The survivors were eventually disembarked 3 days after, on June 5, after a 70-hour navigation from the area of operations to the assigned port.

The same day, Nadir assisted a boat in distress with 73 people onboard, providing them with life jackets and accompanying them towards Lampedusa, Italy. Later, the Italian coast guards evacuated the survivors and disembarked them to Lampedusa. The next day, the same crew found several boats in distress: a first operation involved two boats in distress with 65 people on board, providing them with life jackets, before the arrival of the Italian coast guards. Later, a second operation took place: a steel boat in distress was found in the Maltese SAR zone with 39 people on board. Again, the crew provided them with life jackets and accompanied them towards Lampedusa, Italy. Later, the Italian coast guards evacuated the survivors and disembarked them to Lampedusa.

On June 7, according to Sergio Scandura, Italian coast guards were involved in 3 rescue operations in South of Calabria, one of approximately 900 people and two others of approximately 100 and 150.


Two rescue ships temporarily detained by Italian authorities after rescuing a total of 85 people, prevented to pursue their vital mission

Two German vessels have been temporarily detained by Italian authorities after conducting 3 rescue operations between May 28 and June 1st. The Mare*Go and Sea-Eye 4 are said to have violated the new Italian decree law passed in Italy on February 24, providing for the regulation of the activities of vessels dedicated to Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean. Rescue vessels are for instance required to request the assignment of a port and sail to it immediately after each rescue. In both cases, the vessels were punished with 20 days of administrative detention each.


On its first mission, Mare*Go rescued 36 people from distress at sea on June 1st. The ship disembarked the survivors in Lampedusa, although the authorities had assigned her the Sicilian port of Trapani. The ship’s crew warned that it would not be able to cover the distance to reach the assigned port of Trapani, and that their ship “was not equipped to treat the rescued people on the move for that period of time” (minimum thirty-two hours of navigation). Mare*Go was detained upon arrival in Lampedusa.

Sea-Eye organization declared they will appeal the decision. On June 4th, the NGO also appealed to the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and the German Foreign Office with an urgent request for help. “This law could completely shut down civilian sea rescue if the Italian authorities continue to apply it in this way. After all, we will not ignore distress calls to prevent detentions. To put us in front of this choice is inhumane and irresponsible,” said Gorden Isler, chairman of Sea-Eye.


Tragic milestone of one thousand deaths recorded in the central Mediterranean while interceptions and forced returns continue amidst escalation of violence in Libya

The International Organisation for Migrations (IOM)’s Missing Migrants project documented 1,030 deaths recorded in the Central Mediterranean this year only. These figures are an undercount of the true death toll. They mark a worrying increase in deaths compared to the same period last year.

Between May 14 and June 3 2023, at least 900 people were forcibly returned to Libya according the IOM, totalising 6,684 people intercepted by Libyan coast guards in 2023 so far.  

Several interceptions taking place in the central Mediterranean were also witnessed and reported by SAR NGO’s.

On May 24, SOS Humanity witnessed an illegal pushback performed by a merchant vessel. According to the NGO, the Italian MRCC alerted Humanity 1 and nearby vessels about a boat in distress with 27 people on board. Humanity 1 reported that the people in distress were brought onboard the merchant vessel P. Long Beach, recording a radio conversation where the merchant vessel’s captain was confirming bringing the survivors to Libya.

On June 8, Sea Bird aircraft and MSF’s Geo Barents witnessed Libyan coast guards intercepting a boat in distress with approximately 50 people in International waters, then setting fire to it.

The surge of departures is partly explained by the chaotic situation in Libya. According to Agenzia Nova, tensions were reported in the coastal city of Zawiya at the end of May, with airstrikes conducted by Tripoli’s prime minister, sending a signal to opponents.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called on the parties involved to “respect national and international law” and “protect the civilian population.”

According to Ansa, US and British embassies also reacted to the escalation of tensions, calling for détente among the parties involved in the violence in Zawiya.

The beginning of June did not deescalate in violence for people living and transiting in Libya, with “migrants detained in raids” in the border town of Musaid and other areas in eastern Libya, according to AP news.


Three months after the shipwreck, investigation on Cutro drama

June 2nd, an investigation published by Le Monde, El Pais, Sky News, Domani and Süddeutsche Zeitung, in partnership with “Lighthouse Reports“, revealed the failings of the Italian authorities and Frontex’ implications during the Cutro shipwreck. The investigation claims to find “contradictions in the official account and evidence that both Italy and Frontex misstated what they knew about storm weather and the boat’s condition.”

On February 26, at least 94 people died, including babies and women, in a shipwreck in Cutro, on the southern Italian coast of Calabria. The boat had departed from Turkey four days earlier, with over 200 people onboard and sank while attempting to land after it crashed into rocks in rough weather conditions. According to different media reports and to Frontex, the latter spotted the dinghy via aerial surveillance a day before the tragedy and relayed the information to the Italian authorities. The Italian authorities launched a law enforcement operation rather than a search and rescue operation in sending two patrol boats of the Italian financial guards that eventually had to return to port because of weather conditions. More than 40 Italian and European civil society associations submitted a collective complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Crotone Court asking for an investigation into the Cutro shipwreck to shed light on the responsibilities of Frontex and of the Italian authorities in the deaths of these people. 

Six people are reportedly under investigation, including three Guardia di finanza officials, accused of failing to prevent the tragedy. “There will be a trial for the sinking of Cutro,” says Francesco Verri, one of the lawyers representing the victims’ families. “The State has clear responsibilities, and the Crotone public prosecutor’s office will establish them and bring the guilty parties before the judge,” he believes.

Credit picture: Camille Martin Juan / SOS MEDITERRANEE