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Ocean Viking assists countless boats in distress in the central Mediterranean


Humanitarian needs outweigh rescue means at Europe’s southern border


Just two weeks after the ship’s biggest rescue operation so far, the team on civil rescue ship Ocean Viking once again witnessed the dire lack of sea rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean. On Thursday and Friday, the Ocean Viking, chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and run in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), rescued a total of 439 people from seven unseaworthy boats in distress in the central Mediterranean and also stabilised and assisted many more boats.

The first rescue operation took place on Thursday afternoon in International waters off Libya. Two boats in distress were spotted from the Bridge of the Ocean Viking almost simultaneously. With no response from the Libyan or Italian Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs), the rescue team had to proceed to the evacuation of survivors, while keeping RCCs informed at each step. The same afternoon, the Ocean Viking was alerted to a third boat in distress by civil aircraft Seabird of NGO Sea Watch. After many attempts to seek coordination, the Ocean Viking was authorized to proceed to the rescue by the Libyan Coast Guard and the Italian authorities.

“As we proceeded North with instructions to disembark survivors in the port of Genoa, the dire situation became apparent with the first light on Friday morning. From early morning to late afternoon, the Ocean Viking was engaged in nonstop operations,” explains Albert, SOS MEDITERRANEE Search and Rescue Coordinator onboard. “In some cases, we evacuated survivors directly to the Italian Coast Guard vessels on scene, in other cases, the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescue team stabilized distress cases, distributing life jackets, water and nutrition, before survivors were evacuated directly by the Italian Coast Guard. At one point, five boats in distress could be seen from the Ocean Viking, some of them at the brink of sinking,” Albert recalls.

In the meantime, Italian Coast Guard vessels operated at full capacity and had to return to port to disembark survivors while more unstable makeshift boats kept appearing. The last days once again showed the inadequacy of the humanitarian response in the central Mediterranean, says Sophie Beau, co-founder and General Director of SOS MEDITERRANEE France. “While the Ocean Viking assisted as many boats as possible, in cooperation and coordination with the Italian authorities, the needs far outweighed the means available to stop the mass loss of life we continue to witness in the central Mediterranean, where at least 2,021 people have died or gone missing this year alone. It is the deadliest year in the Mediterranean since 2017 and we continue to call on the European Union and associated States to prioritize saving lives at Europe’s southern borders. Additional rescue means are urgently needed.”

Birgitte Bischoff Ebbesen, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia at IFRC: ”It is extremely worrying that for many people, undertaking the dangerous journey on the Mediterranean is the best option. We should ensure that there are safer pathways for people that allow them to flee violence and reach a better life. We must never forget that deaths of migrants at sea are preventable.”

While Underway to the designated place of safety in Genoa, the Italian authorities have instructed the Ocean Viking to proceed first to Vibo Valentia, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, to disembark some of the survivors rescued on Thursday and Friday. The ship will then continue to Genoa.


Photo Credit: Stefano Belacchi / SOS MEDITERRANEE