Illustration Image

Returning from a sea of shame, Ocean Viking to disembark 236 survivors in Sicily


The Ocean Viking, the ship chartered by European maritime and humanitarian organisation SOS MEDITERRANEE, is sailing towards Augusta, Sicily, after receiving the instruction from Italian maritime authorities to disembark 236 people rescued from two rubber dinghies in distress on Tuesday, April 27th. As great relief is felt onboard for survivors who will soon be reaching a place of safety, the events of the past week in the Central Mediterranean leave our rescuers bitter and grieving, with a need to tell Europe about the reality they have experienced.


An ever-worsening man-made disaster

A shipwreck leaving no survivors, a simultaneous rescue of two overloaded dinghies, several interceptions by the Libyan coastguard. Death, survival, forced returns. Within a week, the SOS MEDITERRANEE teams witnessed what can only be described as a series of consequences of an ever-worsening disaster. Such a succession of events owes nothing to chance. Amid difficult weather and sea conditions, our team has once again seen that this situation is first and foremost a man-made catastrophe.

“Human beings in Libya consciously take advantage of other human beings trapped in appalling conditions, who have no choice but to take the dangerous journey on flimsy boats no matter the risks. Over the years, political leaders of the European Union, on the other hand, have consciously decided not to do everything in their power to save these lives, to stop coordinating search and rescue operations and to enable the Libyan coastguard to unlawfully return people to Libya. Maritime authorities in Libya, Italy and Malta are knowingly not informing nor coordinating non-governmental rescue vessels, which are already very scarce, to conduct life-saving operations”, says Frédéric Penard, Director of Operations for SOS MEDITERRANEE.


survivors, including minors, beaten and forced to embark dinghies

Many of the survivors on the Ocean Viking told the team on board about the violence they suffered at the hands of the smugglers in Libya. Seeing the unseaworthy rubber boats and the high waves on the night they were supposed to cross the Mediterranean, many were beaten and forced to embark. Among those who endured beatings are some of the 119 unaccompanied minors currently onboard Ocean Viking.

“I didn’t believe that we would be alive”, says Daouda*, a 20-year-old survivor from Burkina Faso.


“Europe: we need a human and humane intervention to stop this catastrophe now”

“The fact is that people trapped at sea on makeshift boats in the middle of the Mediterranean cannot rescue themselves. Rescue requires human intervention. This is what we, as rescuers, are once again calling Europe for. Yesterday, for the first time in months, a European navy ship, from the Italian Navy, conducted a rescue in International waters off Libya. We hope that this rescue heralds growing awareness on the part of European governments”, continues Frédéric Penard.

SOS MEDITERRANEE calls for an efficient, lawful and humane European search and rescue programme to be urgently re-established, seven years after the end of operation Mare Nostrum. This requires a return to effective, rapid and non-exclusive coordination, in full respect of maritime law, between maritime authorities and all types of assets available at sea. A return to a European search and rescue fleet is the only option. Europe can no longer remain passive in the face of recurring shipwrecks while consciously upholding a system of unspeakable abuse by supporting forced returns to Libya.

“Europe, we are your citizens and we have seen the worst this week. We are left with the hope this won’t be in vain. We need a human and humane intervention to stop this catastrophe now”, says Frédéric Penard.


*Name was changed.

Cover photo: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE


Note to the editors:

On April 27th, the team on the Ocean Viking rescued 236 men, women and children from two rubber boats in distress in International waters in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region. Just a few days before the rescue operation, on April 22nd, the team had witnessed the aftermath of a horrific shipwreck that claimed up to 130 lives in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region. A dozen of dead bodies could be seen on scene by the team onboard the Ocean Viking. In the hours leading up to the discovery of the remains of the shipwreck, no information was shared with the Ocean Viking, the only NGO rescue ship in the area, by any relevant authority. No maritime rescue coordination centre ensured an effective coordination of the distress case. Only in the aftermath of these events, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex disclosed that it was one of their patrol planes that sent off two MAYDAY calls for the boat in distress. Three merchant vessels and the Ocean Viking, a civil rescue ship, coordinated among themselves in the area to organise the search for survivors. Our calls for support and coordination once again went unanswered.

For a more detailed recap of events:

[STATEMENT] Ocean Viking witnesses aftermath of deadly shipwreck off Libya

Left in the dark: An account of the shipwreck of April 22nd from the Ocean Viking

and our online logbook: 

On April 28th, the Libyan Coastguard intercepted two boats in distress in close proximity of the Ocean Viking, under the eyes of the survivors and the team on board. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed that more than 100 people were forcibly returned to Libya. According to an IOM spokesperson, all of them were taken to detention centres, including the women and children.