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Frequently Asked Questions

This section is designed to provide answers to the most frequently asked questions.


An operation carried out to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety. (Annex to the SAR Convention, 1.3.2)

A situation wherein there is a reasonable certainty that a person, a vessel or other craft is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance (SAR Convention Annex)

– Humanitarian considerations

(i) the existence of a request for assistance, although such a request shall not be the sole factor for determining the existence of a distress situation;

(iv) the availability of necessary supplies such as fuel, water and food to reach a shore;

(vii) the presence of persons on board in urgent need of medical assistance;

(viii) the presence of deceased persons on board;

(ix) the presence of pregnant women or of children on board;”

– Navigational considerations

“(ii) the seaworthiness of the vessel and the likelihood that the vessel will not reach its final destination;

(iii) the number of persons on board in relation to the type and condition of the vessel;

(v) the presence of qualified crew and command of the vessel;

(vi) the availability and capability of safety, navigation and communication equipment;

(x) the weather and sea conditions, including weather and marine forecasts.” (EU Regulation 656/2014 (Art. 9 Search and Rescue Situations)

1 – distress signal

The boat in distress is either spotted from the Bridge of the SOS MEDITERRANEE vessel or its position is reported by a surrounding vessel or search aircraft to the maritime authorities. The maritime authorities must then designate the units in charge of the search and rescue case.

2 – Search

The units designated by the maritime authorities coordinate to find the boat in distress. All available means must be used optimally (aircraft, drones, binoculars, radars, rescue boats, etc.).

3 – Evaluation

Once the boat in distress has been located, the ship of SOS MEDITERRANEE deploys rescue equipment with medical personnel on board as well as emergency equipment. The priority for rescuers is to know the nature and degree of distress, in order to adapt their response. They check the condition of the boat as well as the physical health of the people on board.

4 – Stabilization

Rescuers seek to stabilize the situation, i.e. to move away from the risk of deterioration of the danger as quickly as possible by distributing life jackets, lightening the boat and deploying mass flotation devices (buoys, rafts, etc.).

5 – evacuation

When the most imminent dangers are averted, rescuers evacuate the boat, giving priority to the most vulnerable people (injured, sick, women, children). All these people are then cared for by the medical staff on board the ship chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE while the rescuers complete the evacuation. The rescue ends after the survivors disembark in a place of safety, where their safety of life is no longer threatened.

6 – place of safety instruction

Once survivors are recovered onboard, the ship is assigned or requests a place of safety to the most competent RCC.

7 – Disembarkation

A rescue is deemed terminated once survivors are disembarked in a place of safety, according to maritime and international law.

Official term to designate the people rescued from a distress situation, regardless of their status and nationality.

The obligation to provide assistance ends when the rescued people are disembarked in a place of safety.

“The [SAR State] shall exercise primary responsibility for ensuring such co-ordination and cooperation occurs, so that survivors assisted are disembarked from the assisting ship and delivered to a place of safety” (SAR Convention, Chap. 3.1.9)

“The duty of rescue ends when passengers have been disembarked at a place of safety” (UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), doc. A/AC.259/17, para 21 (2008))

“At this point, it must be underlined that the duty to rescue cannot be considered to have ended with the transhipment on the rescuing boat, but it is characterized also by the disembarkation of the rescued persons in a ‘place of safety’.” (Tribunal of Agrigente (decision of 7.10.2009 re: case of Captain Schimdt of Cap Anamur)

Several studies have clearly demonstrated that there is no link between the presence of civilian rescuers and the number of refugees. People flee for reasons distinct from the number of rescue ships present. Fewer rescue ships do not lead to fewer refugees, but to more deaths during flight.

This question is based on the assumption that it is permissible not to rescue people in distress, in order to prevent further people from fleeing. It is contrary to the duty of rescue at sea, which is clearly defined by the international law of the sea.


place of safety is “a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate. It is also a place 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. (…)” (Annex to the SAR Convention, 1.3.2.). Regulation No 656/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council adds that it should “[take] into account the protection of their fundamental rights in compliance with the principle of non-refoulement” (Regulation No 656/2014, art. 2 (12).

A Rescue Coordination Centre is responsible for the efficient organization of the search and rescue services and coordination of search and rescue operations within a Search and Rescue Region. (Annex to the SAR Convention, 1.3.5.)

Waters extending to 12 Nautical Miles from the shore of a Coastal State. The territorial sea is under the sovereignty of the state, although foreign ships (civilian) are allowed innocent passage.

Waters situated beyond 12 Nautical Miles from the Baseline – outside the territorial waters of a state.

Search and Rescue Region is an area of defined dimensions, associated with an RCC, within which SAR services are provided. It comprises both territorial and International waters. An SRR is an area of enhanced obligations, not extended rights, for States. The purpose of having an SRR is to clearly define who has primary responsibility for coordinating responses to distress situations in every area of the world and to enable rapid distribution of distress alerts to the proper RCC.

Search and Rescue Region of a Coastal State is not to be mistaken with its territorial waters and is not an area where the said State has sovereign authority. It is an area where a SAR State has primary responsibility to coordinate rescue for the best possible outcome for people. In particular, the SRR does not extend the police rights of a State beyond the territorial sea and possibly the Contiguous zone.

An RCC should meet technical and humanitarian requirements in order to be recognized internationally. According to the IMO, the RCC must have certain basic capabilities before it is recognized as having responsibility for an SRR by listing in the IMO Global SAR Plan. Among these required capabilities: 24-hour availability, trained persons, persons with knowledge of the English language; charts which apply to the SRR, ability to receive distress alerts, ability to communicate provision of medical advice or assistance and evacuation. (IAMSAR Manual, vol. I, point 2.3.7).

Partially. Only a minor part of the Libyan SRR is made of Libyan territorial waters. The majority of the Libyan SRR covers International waters. Hence, the Libyan SRR comprises both the Libyan territorial waters (up to 12 nm from the Baseline) and International waters.

Our rescue ship does not enter Libyan ports or territorial waters. It operates in International waters in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region.

Our rescue ship does not communicate with smugglers. Our rescue ship initiates a rescue after having spotted a boat in distress from its Bridge, after having been instructed to rescue by a competent authority or after having received information about a boat in distress from another asset and after informing the competent authorities. Competent authorities are always informed of all activities undertaken by the rescue ship.

Our rescue ship always keeps its AIS transponder on. When it patrols in a specific part of International waters off Libya, its signal is sometimes not visible on open source websites due to the insufficient range of VHF frequencies and the lack of coastal relays on the Libyan shore.

The AIS is a maritime transponder, used in VHF frequency for identification of ships, navigation marks and coastal stations for safety of navigation.

The information published on open source websites such as Marine Traffic or Vessel Finder rely on the coastal relays, which get the AIS signal from the ships by VHF. The VHF frequencies have a limited range of 30 to 50 miles. If a ship is more than 30-50 miles from a shore-based relay antenna, the ship is not visible on the websites anymore, but the AIS is still ON and visible by all stations located 30-50 miles around the ship.

AIS must be activated at any time, unless the Master of the ship decides to switch-off for a minimum period of time the transponder for exceptional security reasons. In such a case, the Master must report on the Bridge logbook the duration and the reason of this deactivation.

In the area where Aquarius patrols off the Libyan coast, there is only one AIS receiving station located in Misurata, which has an average distance coverage of 42.3 nm. The area West of Tripoli is thus not covered by an AIS receiving station.

SOS MEDITERRANEE has always carried out its search and rescue operations in coordination with the relevant maritime authorities and continues to abide by the applicable maritime law. This includes the coordination with the respective rescue coordination centre. That is why during its most recent rescue operations, SOS MEDITERRANEE kept the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) informed about the progress of its rescues. The attempts of contacting the Libyan JRCC were, however, mostly in vain. Either the Libyan authorities did not respond to the radio calls and emails at all, with important delays, or did not speak any English -both of which are required for effective and prompt coordination of rescues from rescue coordination centres (RCCs).

No. In accordance with international maritime law, a rescue is only completed when the survivors have been disembarked in a place of safety, where no threat to their life exists, and where they can receive food, Shelter and medical care (SOLAS / Chapter 5 / Regulation 33). These criteria do not apply to Libya. Various reports by Human Rights Watch, the UN Support Mission in Libya and the UN Human Rights office show that migrants and refugees are exposed to large-scale human rights abuses in Libya, including arbitrary detention, torture, forced labour and sexual exploitation. Returning survivors to Libya would therefore represent a violation of international maritime law as well as the principle of non-refoulement. The UN Refugee Agency also did “not consider that Libya meets the criteria for being designated as a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation following rescue at sea”.