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History & context

May 2015 - Creation of SOS MEDITERRANEE

Klaus Vogel, a merchant marine captain, and Sophie Beau, a humanitarian projects manager, joined forces to establish SOS MEDITERRANEE. The aim of the association is to carry out rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest maritime migration route. After Germany and France, Italy and Switzerland join the European movement.

10 September – 25 October 2015: crowdfunding

With a small group of volunteers, SOS MEDITERRANEE starts a crowdfunding campaign to Charter its rescue ship. In six weeks, 275,000 euros were raised.

20 February 2016: Open Boat

Before embarking for the central Mediterranean’s search and rescue zone, the Aquarius made a stop in Marseille, accompanied by its crew and Médecins du Monde, its first medical partner. A special day was arranged, allowing all citizen project contributors to explore the ship and its amenities. 1,300 visitors had the opportunity to step on board and experience the ship firsthand.   

26 February 2016: First Mission

Credit: Patrick Bar / SOS MEDITERRANEE

The Aquarius embarked on its first mission into International waters along the Libyan coast. On March 7, 2016, 74 people were rescued in a first rescue and brought to safety on board the ship. From then on, one rescue operation followed another. Médecins Sans Frontières took over from Médecins du Monde on May 1, 2016.

June 2018: Closure of Italian ports and disembarkation in Valencia

Credit: Kenny Karpov / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On June 9 and 10, 2018, after nine hours of operations, including two critical rescues in the middle of the night and four transshipments from Italian ships, 630 people were safely placed on board the Aquarius. Among them were 123 unaccompanied minors and 7 pregnant women. After several days of negotiations to find a place of safety to disembark, the Aquarius was finally directed to Spain, more than 1,500 km away. At the end of a week-long odyssey, the Aquarius arrived in the port of Valencia in front of the world’s cameras. 

September 2018: The Aquarius loses its flag

Credit: Maude Veith / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On September 22, 2018, following a rescue, an official statement from Panama announced its intention to withdraw its flag from the ship, invoking pressure from the Italian government. The next day, Aquarius received a report of a boat in distress in International waters. Coordinated by the Libyan coastguard, the Aquarius proceeded to bring the passengers to safety. On September 30, the survivors were transferred to a Maltese navy vessel for disembarkation in Malta. The Aquarius resumed its journey to Marseille to complete the administrative formalities for its registration. 

In October 2018, SOS Méditerranée called on citizens to show their support for the Aquarius. The rescue boat was under the threat of a dock stop because of several attacks on its pavillon. The citizen movement was called “the orange wave”.

December 2018: End of the Aquarius charter

Credit: Isabelle Serro / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On November 20, 2018, an investigation by the Public Prosecutor of Catania (Sicily), concerning an alleged improper sorting of waste on board, led to the decision by the Italian judicial authorities to request the preventive seizure of the Aquarius. This request was not acted on but led the association to decide to part company with the ship. On December 31, in agreement with Médecins sans Frontières, SOS MEDITERRANEE decided to end its Charter of the Aquarius, following the political, administrative, and judicial harassment to which the vessel was subjected. 

4 August 2019: Back at sea with the Ocean Viking

Credit: Jérémie Lusseau / SOS MEDITERRANEE

Despite the hostile environment targeting NGOs operating at sea, SOS MEDITERRANEE resumed its search and rescue operations on August 4 with a new vessel, the Ocean Viking, still in partnership with MSF. On September 14, after 14 months of port closures to NGOs, the Ocean Viking became the first humanitarian vessel authorized to disembark survivors in a place of safety in Italy.  

July 2020: Administrative blockage of the ship

Credit : Jérémie Lusseau / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On July 22, after an 11-hour inspection by the Italian coastguard in the Sicilian port of Porto Empedocle, the Italian authorities detained the Ocean Viking, claiming “technical and operational irregularities”. 

21 December 2020: Liberation of the Ocean Viking

Credit: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On December 21, following a new inspection by the Italian coastguard, the Ocean Viking was released, after having been held in a Sicilian port for five months. After months of discussions with the parties involved, and costly modifications to meet the additional safety requirements set by the Italian authorities, SOS MEDITERRANEE was relieved to be able to resume its search and rescue operations at sea in 2021. 

22 April 2021: deadly shipwreck

Credit: Camille / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On April 22, 2021, the crew aboard the Ocean Viking witnessed the consequences of a deadly shipwreck in the International waters along the Libyan coast, which cost the lives of 130 people. In extremely difficult sea conditions, the Ocean Viking had tirelessly searched for this boat and two others in distress, signalled by the civilian hotline Alarm Phone, in the 24 hours prior to the grim discovery. Despite our attempts to contact the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCC), no authority coordinated the search operation. Eventually, our team was joined in the search by three merchant ships, mobilized by a Mayday relayed by a Frontex aircraft. Unfortunately, the search ended with the discovery of only the wreckage of an inflatable boat and several lifeless bodies floating in the middle of the open sea. 

Following the tragic event, several groups of volunteers decided to gather so as to pay tribute to the 130 persons who died in the Mediterranean Sea. In the French cities of Bordeaux, Concarneau, Lorient, Marseille, Nantes, Paris and Sètes, the commemoration was organized as a moment of recollection and solidarity. The volunteers chose to symbolize these 130 lives with 130 flowers. A similar event also took place in the German cities of Flensbourg and Hambourg.

13 September 2021: IFRC joins SOS MEDITERRANEE onboard

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) inaugurates its partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE with a first joint mission aboard the Ocean Viking, providing post-rescue support to survivors, such as medical care, psychological support and protection. 

November 2022: Toulon

Credit: Camille Martin / SOS MEDITERRANEE

After six difficult rescues from October 22 to 26, 46 requests to relevant authorities for a safe port, and an unprecedented blockage at the gates of Europe, the Ocean Viking was finally instructed to disembark 230 survivors, including more than 55 minors, at the French port of Toulon on November 11.

The survivors of the initial rescue were stranded at sea for 21 excruciating days, marking the longest deadlock SOS MEDITERRANEE had ever faced. Confronted by the silence and lack of response from the relevant maritime authorities—initially Libya and Malta, then Italy— alongside the risk of a criticial deterioration of the situation onboard the Ocean Viking, SOS MEDITERRANEE had no choice but to expand its plea for assistance. Following maritime law protocols, they sought help from countries deemed most capable of providing aid. Greece, Spain, and France were among those approached. Ultimately, it was France that relented and opened a port for the survivors of the Ocean Viking, offering a sense of relief that was tinged with bitter undertones after enduring 21 days of uncertainty and distress aboard the vessel.

March 2023: Libyan Coastguard threatens Ocean Viking crews and brutally intercepts 80 people in distress

Credit: Jérémie Lusseau / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On March 25, the Libyan coastguard, which receives funding, equipment, and training from European Union (EU) member states, threatened the Ocean Viking crew by firing shots. Subsequently, they forcefully intercepted approximately 80 distressed individuals in International waters.

10 July 2023: SOS MEDITERRANEE and IFRC humanitarian crew threatened during rescue operation

Credit: Nissim Gasteli / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On July 10, 2023, the lives of both shipwrecked individuals and the humanitarian crew from SOS MEDITERRANEE and IFRC were endangered during a sea rescue operation. The Libyan coastguard fired shots in close proximity to the rescue crew, marking the third such incident in 2023 and underscoring a growing context of insecurity in the Mediterranean Sea.

21 July 2023: Italian Authorities confirm compliance of Ocean Viking after 10-Day detention

Credit: Claire Juchat / SOS MEDITERRANEE

After 10 days of detention in the port of Civitavecchia, the Italian authorities acknowledge that the vessel chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE complies with all applicable regulations, as confirmed by the Norwegian Flag state authorities and the vessel’s classification society. The detention was therefore lifted without any substantial changes to the certification, crew or life-saving equipment.

August 2023: 623 people rescued in the largest operation ever carried out by the Ocean Viking

Credit: Camille Martin / SOS MEDITERRANEE

Within a 48-hour period of sea operations, the Ocean Viking successfully conducted 15 rescues from August 10 to 11. A total of 623 individuals were rescued from distressed boats in the Mediterranean Sea, including 15 children, 146 unaccompanied minors, and 462 adults. These staggering figures testify to the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Mediterranean and the extreme need to increase search and rescue resources in the area.

November 2023: The Ocean Viking pays the price for lack of coordination from Libyan maritime authorities

Credit: Giannis Skenderoglou / SOS MEDITERRANEE

On November 15th, Italian authorities ordered a 20-day detention of civil rescue ship Ocean Viking and imposed a fine of 3,300€. The Ocean Viking is detained under Decree Law of January 2, 2023 No. 1, commonly called the “Piantedosi Decree”, despite the team fulfilling their indisputable legal obligation to rescue people in distress at sea while communication with the Libyan maritime authorities was virtually impossible.