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Ocean Viking faces a new standoff at sea: disembarkation is urgently needed


Press release
Central Mediterranean, August 5

Today marks the fourth day of the Ocean Viking waiting for a place of safety in International waters of the central Mediterranean with 553 survivors on board and no solution for their disembarkation in sight.

SOS MEDITERRANEE calls on maritime authorities to assign a place of safety without further delay and on EU Member States to reactivate a disembarkation and relocation mechanism supporting coastal states in coordinating disembarkations.

This past weekend, the Ocean Viking – a rescue ship chartered by civil maritime and humanitarian organisation SOS MEDITERRANEE – rescued 555 people from six boats in distress in the central Mediterranean, amidst a continued absence of coordination by maritime authorities. A pregnant woman had to be medically evacuated by the Italian coastguard together with her partner on Tuesday. All 553 survivors, including 119 minors, 4 pregnant women and a 3-month-old baby, suffer in the sweltering heat on the deck of Ocean Viking. They urgently need to disembark in a place of safety, as do the 257 survivors currently onboard the Sea Watch 3.

553 survivors, uncertainty and stifling heat on deck

Many survivors were in extreme states of exhaustion when rescued by SOS MEDITERRANEE teams and remain fragile. Many suffer from generalised body pain, fuel burns and seasickness. Some survivors fainted due to the heat. “In this heat on the confined space on deck, the situation can only get worse day after day” says Luisa Albera, search and rescue coordinator onboard Ocean Viking. “A ship can only be a transition from a distress situation to a place of safety on land. Making people who narrowly escaped death at sea wait for days before disembarking means putting their physical and mental health at risk. The uncertainty adds unnecessary suffering to an already dire situation. There have been too many standoffs at sea over the past three years and I have seen the extremely serious consequences with survivors being pushed into acute psychological distress.”

The Ocean Viking has sent several requests to the maritime authorities in the area for a place of safety to disembark the men, women and children rescued at sea this weekend. “European member states have mobilised in the past and shown solidarity towards coastal states receiving survivors in their ports. We need them to step up now to allow for the disembarkation and relocation of survivors from the Ocean Viking and the Sea Watch 3.”

“When we got on the boat, the smugglers hit everyone”

The six boats rescued by the Ocean Viking departed from Libya, according to the survivors. Some reported having spent up to three days at sea before being rescued. This week, survivors told our team onboard about the horrific abuse they suffered in Libya and about their crossing attempt via the sea.

“When we got on the boat, the smugglers hit everyone. They had guns bigger than my arm. We ran out of water and fuel quickly. We didn’t have a satellite phone, we had no way of contacting anyone. At one point, we saw an empty boat in the middle of the sea, maybe you had rescued the people, maybe they were taken back by the Libyans. On the empty boat, we found small water bottles, we found a fuel cannister. And so we continued, and we just prayed and prayed, and thank God you found us”, Zidane*, a 31-year-old writer from Yemen explained to an SOS MEDITERRANEE team member onboard. Zidane spent 17 hours in the hold of a wooden boat, crammed together below deck with around 24 other people. He was rescued by our team on August 1st, after the Sea Watch 3 had spotted the boat while proceeding to the rescue of another boat in distress.

Amid lack of maritime assets and of effective coordination, hundreds of people reported in distress these past days

In spite of numerous attempts to seek coordination from maritime authorities at all steps of each rescue, none of the six operations the Ocean Viking conducted were coordinated by maritime authorities. All rescues occurred in International waters – four in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region (SRR), one in the Tunisian SRR and one in the Maltese SRR.

With calm seas allowing for departures, in addition to the 555 people rescued by Ocean Viking this weekend, the NGO Sea-Watch rescued over 250 people who are currently also urgently awaiting a place of safety on board the Sea-Watch 3, while several medical evacuations had to occur in the meantime. Hundreds of others were reported in distress on Monday. The sailing boat Nadir of ResQship, monitoring the central Mediterranean, assisted several boats in distress, two persons in critical conditions received lifesaving medical treatment on board. One man had to be resuscitated by a paramedic before they could eventually be medically evacuated to Malta. Most boats were reportedly rescued by Italian, Maltese and Tunisian Coast Guards hours after NGOs alerted to their distress and sent Mayday relays on their behalf.

SOS MEDITERRANEE reiterates its urgent call for more European State-led search and rescue assets and effective coordination of search and rescue at sea. European solidarity is crucially needed. Human lives depend on it.

Photo credits: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE